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Bold New Staging Of The Hairy Ape At London's Old Vic
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Bold New Staging Of The Hairy Ape At London's Old Vic

Picture of Danielle Wood
Updated: 9 February 2017
The Hairy Ape by American playwright Eugene O’Neill played at London’s historical The Old Vic theatre until Nov. 21, 2016. The Hairy Ape (1922) first premiered at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, New York City, to a packed house. As the curtain fell on opening night, the audience was left astonished by O’Neill’s controversial play projecting themes of class conflict, materialism, the self and society, and disillusionment – themes which still resonate today.

When O’Neill sought to bring The Hairy Ape to life, he revelled in the uptown Broadway players never having produced work of similar content and quality; his peers cheered in agreement over the play’s ‘bold originality’. Inevitably, the play went on to be produced by the commercial lot on Broadway, but nonetheless, The Hairy Ape held tightly to its revolutionary status. The expressionist play is about a brutish labourer known as Yank who, while working in the industrial steel world, comes face to face with the owner of the company’s rich daughter, Mildred Douglas. On their first encounter, Mildred refers to Yank as a ‘filthy beast’, and such a clash of minds spirals Yank into an identity crisis. Once his time on the transatlantic liner comes to an end, Yank heads into Manhattan in search of Mildred to confront her views on social standing, but in doing so comes to the realisation that he himself doesn’t belong anywhere.

Led by the Olivier award-winning director, Richard Jones CBE, the titan cast of The Hairy Ape arrives on stage in a wave of heated theatrical action. Throughout the play’s eight scenes, the audience follows the protagonists being stripped of their grandiose delusions. The Hairy Ape demonstrates O’Neill’s concern for the oppressed industrial working class who are persecuted by the capitalist system. The industrial environment scenes are performed from a dehumanised stance, whereas the superficial figures of New York City hold a nonchalant attitude to those – such as Yank – unable to find belonging in any social group. As scenes unfold, the audience watches Yank navigate a roller coaster of emotions relating to the ‘filthy beast’ stigma that Mildred harshly attached to him. In one scene, he is the king of his world and in charge of his destiny, with proceeding scenes showing his vulnerability and descent into loneliness.

The versatile Bertie Carvel (Yank) leads a solid cast in a journey of self-discovery through the 1920s play. Carvel’s commanding stature truthfully represents the brash character of Yank. The audience simultaneously feels empathy and irritation towards Yank’s deliberate efforts to isolate himself from everyone with whom he comes in contact. Yank’s unwillingness to accept social standing in all of its positive and negative forms reflects O’Neill’s personal struggle with the 1920s American society.

Like The Hairy Ape‘s playwright, director Richard Jones is globally acclaimed for accepting provocative, eyebrow-raising theatre projects. Known previously for working with the Public Theatre New York, the English National Opera, and RSC, Jones was The Old Vic’s top choice for tackling The Hairy Ape. Jones’ direction of O’Neill’s play is one of physicality; this is evident from the opening scene, where a broad of workers chant and drink, to the play’s ending, which is set in the zoo with Yank talking and releasing the ape.

The Old Vic is the perfect theatre for a rambunctious play like The Hairy Ape. Decades of past notable performances pour from the walls of the theatre and grace the action on stage. With a director and cast straight from the high ranks of theatre heaven, The Hairy Ape is an unmissable mélange of drama and dialect-inflected writing in the heart of London’s theatre world.