For the second production in Matthew Warchus’ inaugural season at the helm of the Old Vic, he has revisited two significant eras of the theatre’s recent history. First, from the Mirvish/Jonathan Miller of the 1980s, he has invited Richard Jones — whose productions of Too Clever By Half, The Illusion and A Flea in Her Ear were big hits there and who Warchus has dubbed “my favourite director in the country” in a recent interview with The Stage  — back to direct. And Kevin Spacey twice starred in plays by Eugene O’Neill at the theatre, first coming there as an actor only in the transfer of the Almeida’s The Iceman Cometh and subsequently also starring in A Moon for the Misbegotten when he took over as artistic director.
Those were undoubtedly both big O’Neill plays, but now Jones is directing a much bolder choice altogether in The Hairy Ape; in a programme note, Warchus states “it’s a remarkable piece of writing which only turns up on stage once in a lifetime”. That’s not entirely true, since it was last produced in London in 2012 at Southwark Playhouse.
But it is certainly rare to see it presented on this scale and with this rigour and vigour. This is an utterly extraordinary production of an extraordinary play, one that champions the underdog while also providing a devastating portrait of the ultimately doomed futility of his struggle. When the soot-besmeared stokers on a transatlantic liner, working in sweaty conditions below decks, find themselves visited by the curious white-linen dressed daughter of the president of the liner, she recoils, horrified, at what she sees, and declares Yank, a formidably built stoker, a hairy ape.
He is harshly stung and feels dehumanised, and proceeds to exchange one cage for another after he goes to New York’s Fifth Avenue and is arrested after attacking a member of the upper classes there. After he escapes from prison, he finds that he belongs nowhere at all – when he tries to enrol at the offices of the Industrial Workers of the World but they too reject him, thinking he must be a spy. Finally, he comes face-to-face with a real ape in a zoo, and his destiny is harshly sealed.
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.