Tuesday, 27 October 2015

'The Hairy Ape' at The Old Vic

Went to see 'The Hairy Ape' at The Old Vic last week and I've been struggling with what to say about it. It's still in preview (I ought to make plain) but I don't know what to say. It's described on the website and elsewhere as 'Eugene O'Neill's existentialist masterpiece' but, from where I was sitting, 'masterpiece' is the last word I'd use to describe it. It stars Bertie Carvell who, clearly, can act his socks off and it's his job to carry the play.  It's not that I saw it on an off night, I suspect it's the play I didn't buy into.

It's the tale of Yank, a stoker in the boiler room of an Atlantic cruise ship and he rules the boiler room with threats of violence and his presence alone. Don't mess with Yank, the rest of the crew quickly learn. He's the dominant man, the alpha male in that world.  But then the spoiled daughter of the shipping tycoon wants to go to the boiler room and turns up unannounced, is shocked at what she sees and runs off, fainting into the first officer's arms. Yank is upset by this - how did seeing him working upset her so much? it's his job, he has every right to be doing his job doesn't he? he's right isn't he? And he wants revenge on her and has to be held down and subdued to prevent hi from marching up to her cabin.

So far so good, but then he gets off the ship in New York and encounters a load of posh people, gets aggressive and ends up in jail for the night. He causes trouble there and seeks out the local liberal pinko-commies to work for them and blow up the steel mill for the cause so they throw him out and beat him up. So he ends up at the zoo and somehow gets in and taunts the gorilla before going in his cage and, presumably, gets squeezed to death. Um, ok then, I'm with you so far…

Well, no, I'm not actually. How can a violent thug like Yank be beaten up by a bunch of liberal pinko-commies (wearing glasses no less) when he rules the boiler room? How and why is he so slow-witted and thick? I'm getting really tired of American plays that seem to always depict working class men as thick and violent who end every sentence with the word 'see?'. I thought that was a Jimmy Cagney gangster-thing but clearly it's much broader. Don't any of these men know how to think, to read, to reason? It is possible to depict working class men in other ways than by being almost incapable of stringing a sentence together and talking with their fists. And I think there's the nub of my problem with 'The Hairy Ape' - it's the play not the production. I won't be going back.

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