Long before the Great Depression caused America’s workforce to stall, Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 expressionist sequence of scenes, “The Hairy Ape,” rattled the cages of capitalism. In the new production at the Old Vic, director Richard Jones rams home the attack with a vivid and visual staging, but all the searing imagery in the world goes to waste if you can’t hear the words. Bertie Carvel’s Yank is physically commanding, but the play’s subtleties get swallowed with O’Neill’s script, as thick, mumbled accents scupper the ship. It is, however, time to recognize Carvel as one of Britain’s most thrilling stage actors.
Carvel is an old-school transformer type, a wig-walk-and-voice sort of star. Anyone who saw his Tony-nominated performance in “Matilda the Musical” can likely still hear his sneering falsetto as Miss Trunchbull. More recently he was back in drag for “Bakkhai,” emerging blood-soaked and shrieking onto the Almeida Theater stage as a mother brandishing her son’s head on a pike. This has been Carvel’s year: three television leads (including one in BBC America’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”), a belting “Bakkhai” and now O’Neill’s blue-collar baboon.
As Yank, he’s as square and solid as a shipping container, but nonetheless still human and fleshy and soft. In the cramped engine room of an ocean liner, he stands head and shoulders above his fellow coal-shovelers, coated in soot but gleaming with sweat. The others are big blokes; next to Carvel they look like meercats. He glugs whisky like water then erupts, slamming three tables together with a hard metal clang — a beast completely unleashed.
Yet he’s still capable of vulnerability. When a young woman (Rosie Sheehy) screams at the sight of him, her insults cut through. Carvel deflates, then pumps himself up, doing chin-ups below deck. By the time he gets to New York, he’s quiet and introverted. Dressed as an “On the Waterfront” Brando, he shrugs and stumbles around like a concussed boxer. It’s only rage against the machine that re-inflates him again.
Jones’ production is best when at sea. The director makes the most of the muscle and masculinity below deck — ten bulked-up bodies in grey, coal-dusted uniforms working in a bright yellow cage. Aletta Collins’ stunning choreography has them shoveling in stop motion, so, when they freeze, you see each tiny muscle at full flex. At one point they morph, momentarily, into Viking oarsmen, as if heaving the liner to America themselves.
The yellow is unmissible, lurid and toxic and unnatural, especially under Mimi Jordan Sherin’s queasy lighting. It’s like designer Stewart Laing took a highlighter to all the steel in the world — the ships being stoked across the Atlantic, the skyscrapers sticking out of New York, the toolboxes of construction workers putting more up. It rams the point home: The entire economy serves itself, more steel to make bigger businesses. All these workers build their own cages.
Elsewhere, Laing’s design is dreamier and surreal, more operatic than anything else. Posh folk charleston down Fifth Avenue. Union snobs hush Yank in unison. The Steel Magnate’s face looms out of the moon, until even that turns yellow. Then, of course, the ape itself, the only thing onstage more powerful than Carvel.
However, for all the heft of these images, the play disappears pretty quickly. It’s terribly spoken — not just inaudible but totally garbled, almost as if no one onstage has a clue what they’re saying, and no one thought to ask. O’Neill’s careful critique becomes a blunt cudgel.