On Thursday I had the pleasure of attending The Hairy Ape‘s press night at the Old Vic. Somehow only my second visit to this wonderful theatre – The Crucible last summer was a good one to break myself in with though!
The play is Eugene O’Neill’s favourite of his own work; a 90-minute piece that centres around fireman (in this case a coal shoveller) Robert ‘Yank’ Smith and his attempts to understand, and change, the social order of his time. Written in 1922, it is a stark contrast to most of the popular images we hold of the American inter-war years. The Great Gatsby touches on it with the depiction of the Valley of Ashes, but it is rare to see this aspect of the so-called ‘Roaring Twenties’ placed centre-stage. It’s a telling inclusion in Matthew Warchus’ debut season as the Old Vic’s artistic director, given the political & economic climate we are currently living in.
Stewart Laing’s set is boldly designed, and very much in keeping with O’Neill’s expressionistic writing – the style is simple, yet evocative. It is a canvas upon which the story can be built. The yellow cages & engine room stand out against the gloom of the black background, impressively highlighted further by some bold lighting (Mimi Jordan Sherin). My favourite set is probably the IWW base: a cramped space shaped like a house, quite geometric & coloured simply in black, red & white.
This simplicity just accentuates the acting on show. The ensemble is strong, however it is Bertie Carvel as Yank who captivates in every scene. I’d never seen him onstage before, and only a few times on TV – mostly playing variations on the upper-class man theme. So it is a pleasant surprise to see the range he is capable of drawing on, and indeed how powerful a performer he is. His New York accent is impressively authentic – occasionally some of the words are lost due to a combination of the accent & a fast delivery, however that is my only criticism. He truly captures the spirit of Yank, even eliciting sympathy from the audience at times. It really makes the shocking ending all the more visceral.
My verdict? Possibly the most important piece of theatre of the year – you absolutely must see this production.
The Hairy Ape runs at the Old Vic until 21 November 2015. Tickets are on sale at the box office & online – some concessions are available.