Great Apes at Arcola Theatre
The latest work to be adapted for the stage by writer and producer Patrick Marmion is British novelist Will Self’s Great Apes. The modern satire focuses on Turner Prize-winning artist Simon Dykes (Bryan Dick) who wakes up one day after a heavy night of drinking and drugs, to discover his girlfriend has transformed into a chimpanzee, along with the rest of the world.
The show garners plenty of hearty laughs throughout, holding up a mirror to society, engaging in its absurdity. Simon is eventually taken to Charing Cross Hospital, due to what the chimpanzees deem a mental breakdown, curious as to why he has entered a delusional state of mind where he no longer believes himself to be a primate. The play balances humour with serious aspects, like the treatment of animals, in an ironic light, as the tables have turned and humans now live in zoos. The chimps are self-aware and highly intelligent; they work in human-like roles: for instance, Ruth Lass’s brilliant Alpha chimp Zack Busner, a radical psychiatrist, Gambol (John Cummins) a research assistant, along with documentary filmmakers and anthropologists.
It is not the first time in pop culture that we have been confronted by the possibility of a simian intelligence higher than ours, like in Planet of the Apes. Self has grounded his plot in something feasible, albeit bizarre. References to the “pansexual mating opportunities” of Hampstead Heath, and other entertaining lines, push the piece further into comic territory. The cast ingeniously imitate chimps – both visually and through sound – with short crutches, backsides out and legs bowed, crying out in pant-hoots, thanks to movement director Jonnie Riordan and chimpanzee physicality and vocalisation consultant Peter Elliott. There are many allusions to primate behaviours and characteristics like the oestrus, symbolised by three fluffy pink pillows. Offerings of behinds, such as is the norm in chimp culture, is received with uncontrollable laughter, and the actors very much become these intellectual primates.
Throughout the piece we are left wondering if Simon really is a chimpanzee like the majority of the population, or if he is in fact a homo sapian. Dan Balfour’s exhilarating sound design heightens the sense of uncertainty and terror, in a world inhabited by chimpanzees with a conscience, where people are becoming extinct. As the protagonist observes the humans around him in the wild, the audience are cast with light – a slightly interactive part that is cleverly executed, after which a blackout occurs with Simon’s gasp.
Great Apes may be regarded by some as highbrow, with the medical and scientific jargon, but nevertheless it embarks on a journey in which empathy is evoked for animals in zoos and reflects on our relationship with the natural world.
Great Apes is at Arcola Theatre from 15th March until 21st April 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for Great Apes here: