A CurtainUp London Review
The Hairy Ape
The play opens in a yellow container reminding me of one of Shunt's productions set on pop up sites in transport containers. The opening image is a dark sculpture, a powerful mass of heaving bodies against the bright yellow container that gets the black coal dust on it as the men come into contact with the walls. The play has many of these wonderful images, black and yellow and worthy of display in a gallery of modern but not abstract art.
Apart from these men, is the lone figure of a man shaped like a gorilla, his pronounced arse resting on the metal table, his massive shoulders hunched forward and his muscular arms hanging down braced on his knees like a drama student on an early exercise to take on the physical characteristics of a monkey at the zoo. He folds his arms round his body and scratches repeatedly at his armpits. We are as close as we can get to man aping a gorilla. This is Robert Smith or Yank (Bertie Carvel) and his stage presence is riveting. He swings from the overhead bars in case we had failed to grasp the visual simian analogy.
Maybe the unintelligibility of what he says is a part of the director's plan for us to realize the Darwinian origins of this man. We cut to the deck of the boat under a backdrop of Douglas Steel. I muse about how almost a hundred years later Douglas Steel is standing up to the influx of cheap imports of steel produced in China? Here is the very spoilt Mildred (Rosie Sheehy), daughter of the steel magnate arguing with her aunt chaperone. At her request, Mildred is taken down to the engine room of the ship by the Second Engineer (Nicholas Karimi) where she comes face to face with Yank and hysterically calls him a "filthy beast". She then swoons and is rescued by the ship's officer.
Mildred can make no connection between her father's wealth and the labour of the stokers. Yank is confused and upset at her reaction to him. The scene set in 5th Avenue New York where Yank and Long are on leave in New York sees the rich parade out of church. In the shop window is a fur coat made out of monkey fur. These upper classes wear masks and hats, the women have yellow shoes and furs. They break into a Charleston, epitomizing the idle rich but Yank gets arrested after fighting with one of them and ends up in prison where he is told about the Industrial Workers of the World political organization.
On his release Yank visits the printing headquarters of the IWW. This is another opportunity for a startling set, co-ordinated 1920s workers and white bookshelves with piles of little red books hot off the press. Yank's sense of alienation is complete when even this organization, designed to help the oppressed, reject his approach to them, suspecting he's a spy and hounding him.
Finally alone and cast out, Yank seeks understanding at the zoo from the gorilla colony. Bertie Carvel's singular performance embraces both the aggressive masculinity of Yank but also his fragility as he seeks to make sense of his place in this world precipitating his tragic end.
If you are coming anew to this O'Neill play, I'd recommend an understanding of the scenes in order to get the most out of the stunning visuals and physicality of Bertie Carvel's wonderful performance as the man caught in inhumanity.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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