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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Old Vic


Welcome to the human zoo. This production of Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 wild ride through exploitation, inequality and alienation is thrilling, with the crazed visual compulsion of a nightmare and a sweaty intensity that you can almost smell. It’s directed by the ever-provocative Richard Jones, and designed, with stunning flair, by Stewart Laing. And leading a tightly drilled ensemble as the disenfranchised, despairing Yank is Bertie Carvel, sinewy, desperate, an abused innocent with a hard, muscular body and a tormented soul.
We find Yank and his fellow stokers labouring in the bowels of an ocean liner. They’re imprisoned in a kind of steel cage, scorchingly lit in a yellow reminiscent of urine or sulphur. The workers, overall-clad, are dirty, loping, singing ragged hymns to “glorious beer.” They shower but remain streaked with soot. They tussle, argue and strut, leaping on tables, swinging, with simian athleticism, from beams. “It takes a man to work in hell,” they brag with chest-beating pride. But they’re treated not like men, but like animals, particularly when Mildred Douglas (Rosie Sheehy), the daughter of a millionaire steel magnate, demands to descend to gawp at these creatures at their labour. The ship’s deck is lit by moon or sun, serene, elegant and to Mildred dull; dismissing her Aunt and chaperone as a “cold, pork pudding” and, with an almost demonic, deranged cackle, she descends to the stokers’ scorching hell. There, the men are arranged in a row, from ape to knuckle-grazer to homo sapiens, like an evolutionary diagram. They are all, to Mildred, just “monkeys in a menagerie.” Confronted with Yank, she gasps, “Oh, the filthy beasts!” – and with that, we’re off, via Laing’s extraordinary animations, through romantic visions of Jazz Age New York, a jarring contrast to the wretched life and ugly fate of Yank, who will fight to establish his own humanity and search – in vain – for a sense of belonging.
O’Neill called his play “super-naturalism” – a hybrid of bold Expressionist panache and psychological and political insight. As Yank begins his odyssey – which sees him rejected by well-heeled Manhattanites as well as socialist industrial labour union organisers on the Waterfront, caged and humiliated in prison and finally face to face with a gorilla in a real zoo – Jones presents us with a series of extraordinary and unforgettable stage pictures. A mannequin in a shop window, clad in furs, stands against a Rousseau-style jungle backdrop. Glittering socialites, fox stoles swinging around their throats, Charleston frantically in frenetic choreography by Aletta Collins, their blank, white-masked faces like those of tailor’s dummies. Shadow goblins leap and dance. A drunken reveller in a clownish party hat carries a vast white balloon on which the image of the face of Mildred’s disgustingly rich father is emblazoned, bloated, smug, dead-eyed.
It’s a play, and a production, full of rage – against capitalism, class division, economic inequality and the ravening appetite of industrialisation – consuming lives, grinding flesh, bone and souls in the service of production, oiling its giant money-making machines with blood. So spectacular is Jones’ production, so crammed with grotesque detail and so frantic with activity, that it could easily overwhelm the actors. But Carvel, with his strange and riveting blend of vulnerability and brute strength, unschooled sensitivity and tongue-tied helplessness, holds his own. It is an extraordinary experience: visceral, savage and, finally, moving, too. 


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