-The Guardian-

"Work of magnificent assurance"
-The Telegraph-

"utterly extraordinary"
-The Stage-

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A stunning production

Critic Rating

20 October 2015, Old Vic Theatre
Guest Reviewer Guest Reviewer
Fans of Bertie Carvel have certainly been rewarded with his recent burst of activity – he starred in Bakkhai at the Almeida, had a major role in BBC drama Doctor Foster and now returns to the theatre to lead this revival of Eugene O’Neill’s play The Hairy Ape. The play is described as a classic expressionist masterpiece and whilst that might be overstating things ever so slightly, it does give a useful pointer to the heightened theatricality of the drama and of Richard Jones’ production.

Stewart Laing’s set design sees the Old Vic revert to its original proscenium arch layout and opens in a striking banana-yellow shipping container which serves as the bowels of a transatlantic ocean liner where the gruff Yank proudly rules as the strongest stoker. A crass remark by an unthinking upper class girl shatters his confidence though and awakens a crisis of identity in him, a consciousness of self that struggles to find a place in New York, where he eventually disembarks.

And because we’re in the world of expressionism, these early scenes are beautifully mounted. In the sharp angles and defined shadows of Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting, the movement of the labourers is carefully choreographed by Aletta Collins. The swells of the sea reforming their positions into ever more picturesque tableaux, the swinging of their shovels rippling like a Newton’s Cradle, their soot-stained glistening torsos a celebration of the uncomplicated masculinity where Yank feels so at home.

Once he leaves the ship, things become a little more complex and the production loses a little of its striking intensity. From Fifth Avenue to prison to organised labour meetings to the zoo, O’Neill’s thesis of the oppression of the industrial working classes is reiterated time and again and thus diminishing in impact. Carvel is remarkable as the ever-present Yank but he too latterly struggles to maintain the requisite compelling force, not helped by the sometimes-impenetrable thickness of O’Neill’s accented dialogue.

There’s still much to enjoy in Jones’ production though, continuing Matthew Warchus’ revamp of this august venue with bolder, more modern choices. The ensemble work is strong - Callum Dixon and Nicholas Karimi stand out as does Steffan Rhodri’s lyrically garrulous Paddy. Creatively, there’s superb work from all concerned, Sarah Angliss’ haunting sound design rounding off the set. A play to admire rather than truly love perhaps but a stunning production.

Susannah Clapp
This is operatic theatre. It is not perfectly spoken: let me rephrase that; large early stretches are inaudible. Even superb Bertie Carvel is muffled by his grunting naturalism. Yet there is never any doubt about what is happening, or what is being felt. Carvel has particularly strong support from Steffan Rhodri and Buffy Davis (exciting to see Jolene from The Archers on stage). He yet again proves himself among our top-ranking actors. Miraculously he seems to have added a foot to his height. He shoulders his way through the action with a simian swing of the arms. He touches your heart as he bludgeons. He even holds his own alongside an exceptionally charismatic caged gorilla. Call him Bertie Brando.

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Jane Shilling
Director Richard Jones tackles this formidable balancing act with verve, drawing ensemble work of magnificent assurance from his cast and production team. Stewart Laing’s sparse, supple designs beautifully suggest the inhuman context of Yank’s tragedy. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s bravura lighting makes the audience flinch in sympathy with O’Neill’s characters, while Aletta Collins’s sharp-edged choreography, set to Sarah Angliss’s disturbing fractal soundscape, eloquently conveys a sense of brutal disjunction.

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Mark Shenton
The story provides a tour de force for the strongly phsyicalised performance of Bertie Carvel, but the genius of director Jones and his designer Stewart Laing is to render this strange, compelling play as simultaneously abstract and frighteningly real. It goes from highly stylised to authentically gritty and grimy in a second; and it is given plenty of animating colour by the ensemble cast around him. Sound and lighting also play their vivid parts in establishing atmosphere, mood and menace.

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