Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neill, The Old Vic, London; reviewed by Ian Oakley

This is the play of a young playwright experimenting with form and finding his artistic feet. That the playwright is Eugene O’Neill is why the play still has power and resonance 90 years after it was written.

The story opens in the bowels of an Ocean Liner and we are introduced to the central character, Yank, the strongest stoker on the ship.

He is immune to his shipmates’ complaints and socialism, until an encounter with the ship’s owner’s daughter, who wanted to slum it in the depths of the ship (I suppose the modern equivalent is Samantha Cameron and her awful tattoo), sends Yank on a journey through 1920s American society.

The scenes of Yank being beaten up by the New York police show how little certain things have changed in American society.

Some critics, mainly from the right wing papers, have objected that the piece is somehow left-wing propaganda, thereby proving that media bias is not just a left-wing phenomena and the review pages are not immune from it.

It is a much more interesting piece than a form of propaganda, in that O’Neill’s natural scepticism shows through in Yank’s rejection of a political solution to his situation and his embrace of violence and anger.

You can feel the shadow of the Russian Revolution over the piece; the fact that O’Neill refuses to endorse a political solution to Yank’s situation is measure of his understanding of the human condition and of the fact that he never embraced the Revolution in the way that many of his friends and associates did.

The production is excellent, the burden of the play falls on the actor playing Yank, and Bertie Carvel is more than equal to the task.

It is a measure of his abilities as an actor that I last watched him playing Nick Clegg in the Channel 4 drama Coalition. The thought of Nick Clegg working as a stoker in an Ocean Liner is appealing, but somehow I don’t think Cleggy would last an hour, let alone a full shift.

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