The Old Vic is certainly doing things differently now that Matthew Warchus is in charge. The main foyer space and downstairs bar has been entirely revamped, and so, too, is the artistic offering on stage. Kevin Spacey opted for conventional, star-driven classic drama, sometimes with himself as the star; but for Warchus, the star is the play.
And what a star the play is here. Eugene O'Neill's early play, written in 1922, came after he'd already won two Pulitzer prizes for Beyond the Horizon and Anna Christie, the latter of which featured a stoker who falls in love with a young woman who has been working as a prostitute. There are more stokers on offer in The Hairy Ape, working in brutal, grimy conditions of an ocean liner. But this is a play not about the mutual redemption of love but a fatal lack of self-worth that is triggered by the young daughter of the owner of the ocean liner who calls Yank, the man she encounters on a visit below decks, "a filthy beast."
He is forced into a realisation of the way the world sees him, and embarks on a trip from the Brooklyn shipyards to Manhattan's 5th Avenue where he sees more evidence of inequality; when he challenges the society folk there, he is arrested and imprisoned. He has swapped one cage for another, vividly represented in Stewart Laing's sets.
But this man's spirit can't be caged, but nor can he find acceptance anywhere, even when he tries to join a workers' union. Finally, he has a reckoning with a creature he has been accused of resembling — a hairy ape in a zoo.
It's a strange play, to be sure, but also constantly compelling, especially thanks to Richard Jones's ingenuous and driven production, and Bertie Carvel's raw, rugged performance as Yank. It's sometimes hard to watch, but impossible to look away.
"It’s a courageously inventive performance that few of his contemporaries could match, but even Carvel could do more to relish the language."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Bertie Carvel gives moving expression to Yank’s rage and vulnerability, growing steadily in stature with every new assault of misfortune, violence and frustration. With a slight vocal shift from volume to projection, his admirable performance might become a great one."
Jane Shilling for The Telegraph
"Carvel makes his moodiness painful, his pride clumsy and his self-discovery explosive."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard