The Old Vic is back on form. After an and uncertain start with his opening production Future Conditional new Artistic Director Matthew Warchus must know that his second production has upped the game.
This is Eugene O'Neill's heavily adapted script, which opened to rave reviews in 1922, seems to translate timelessly into a 21st century context. All those pre-war themes remain just as pertinent – "us" and "them", social inequality, rich and poor and basic human injustice.
A digital context has changed much of the way industry goes about its business however and yet somehow, Stewart Laing's set designs with an emphasis on steel, bright lights and gaudy yellows, gives the audience an impressionistic feel which helps shift the mind to the modern era.
Bertie Carvell [of the husband of Dr Foster fame] plays Yank – the physically strong macho grafter who works below deck on one of the huge ships plying the Atlantic. Its hard filthy work shoveling coal.
His fellow workers just kind of put up with it – asking few questions and just accepting their grimy fate.
But Yank will have none of it – responding badly to a rich woman's taunt that he is just an animal – worthy of nothing in the engine room of life.
Audibility in this production is a serious issue and I think this is something that directors have to take on board more and more. In fact it is so obvious! Sometimes words could not be heard – and not just because of the American/Irish accents which subsume vowels and emphasise consonants.
Carvel who is also hard to hear in the opening scenes is on stage a great deal, almost without pause, and it is only at the end of the 90 (no interval) minutes that one realises how he increases in confidence and overall projection [light and shade] as the play gathers momentum towards its apish conclusion.
Overall, after two deeply philosophical productions in a row, which ask deep questions about life and living, Warchus will ultimately need to address the entertainment factor at the Old V|icand not just at Christmas. I looked at the audience's faces throughout. They were gripped, listening to as much as they could hear, but the message is deeply troubling.
O'Neill, on a wet Monday night, rather sends you home on the tube provoked, questioning, full of questions and dilemmas. The world for this Hairy Ape is not a jungle of delight.