Britain in 2015 is a painfully class conscious place. Barely a day goes by without a new statistic on economic inequality, a new debate on constitutional reform, or a new allegation of student bestiality rearing its ugly head.
Why The Old Vic has chosen to stage The Hairy Ape, Euguene O’Neill’s 1922 expressionist play about a dyed-in-the-wool working class labourer coming to terms with his place in the grand scheme of things, is something of a mystery then. Unlike America in the early 20th Century, modern Britain does not need reminding of society’s inherent stratification.
Which is not to say that Richard Jones’ production is anything but excellent. It is a blistering 90 minutes, featuring a magnetic central performance from Bertie Carvel – until now best known for his role as Mrs Trunchbull in Matilda The Musical, some dynamic direction from Jones and a stylishly abstract set, designed by Stewart Laing. It is all classy stuff, no doubt. It’s just not particularly relevant.
Carvel is Yank, a muscle-bound Brooklyn boy, straight from the Waterfront, the kind of guy Eddie Carbone could tell you things about. The Yank “belongs”, so he claims, shovelling coal deep in the belly of an ocean liner. When the vivacious daughter of the ship-owning steel magnate vists Yank’s engine room and abuses him for his dirty appearance, labelling him a “hairy ape”, he is so vexed that he swaps the sea for the streets of Manhattan, seeking retribution for her insult.
Carvel is brilliantly, thrillingly energetic, using Laing’s set as a playground, clambering over obstacles and hanging from steel bars like a monkey in a cage. His drawling accent never skips a beat and his slow comprehension of the truth is artfully realised with touching pathos. Here is a man trapped between his background and his conscience, a confused, angry biped who does not have a place in a capitalist society.
Jones orchestrates his ensemble cast with verve, from the ship’s engine room – where men in grimy vests shovel coal with metronomic rhythm – to Fifth Avenue – where faceless upperty church-goers preen and parade with exaggerated flamboyance. It is the production’s set that truly sticks in the memory, though. Fluorescent yellow cages, dazzlingly bright lights, a giant balloon with the steel magnate’s leering face plastered across it, and a surprisingly convincing gorilla costume all feature in Laing’s ardently expressionist design.
Yet for all this, The Hairy Ape is a tame, tepid piece of theatre with regrettably little to say. Carvel is impressive, Laing’s design is eye-catching, and Jones’ direction is imaginative and assured, but this quality merely masks the yawning gulf at the heart of the play. It is comparable to O’Neill’s bellicose protagonist: all bark and no bite, all style and no substance.