Arcola Theatre, London – until 21 April 2018
Opening the spring 2018 season at the Arcola is Patrick Marmion’s new stage adaptation of Will Self’s novel Great Apes. Published in 1997, it confronts the self-importance of humans in the evolutionary Tree of Life and turns it on its head – what if humans weren’t the dominant species? Would we recognise the world that was created?
Simon Dykes is an award-winning modern artist, but after a celebratory night on the tiles he wakes up to find his girlfriend Sarah has turned into a chimpanzee – in fact, he appears to be the only human in a world filled with apes. It soon becomes clear that he’s not imagining what seems to be the new world order, as the clothed chimps do their best to take care of him, but are forced to keep him in a psychiatric unit out of necessity. In a bid to help Simon accept his “chimpunity”, renowned psychiatrist Dr Zack Busner invites him to stay at his “group home” near Hampstead Heath; after an initial struggle he makes good progress, but returning to his own stomping ground could be what makes or breaks him…
Having reached a stage where humanity seems intent on destroying the planet – be it through climate change, nuclear war or other means – it seems the right sort of time to really question how good human beings really are and think about whether any other species might have done a better job. It’s also a great reminder of just what a lottery evolution is: a simple gene mutation (in this case FOXP2) could make the difference between one species’ relationship to another.
It’s all a bit chaotic to start with, perhaps understandably, but once we’re properly introduced to the chimpanzee version of reality it does start to settle down and find its feet. The story definitely suits the stage, as it’s a medium where the audience is required to suspend its disbelief and use some imagination, so the ambiguity over Simon’s situation is intensified.
Visually speaking, Sarah Beaton’s set lends itself to the range of scenarios involved in the play and does well to make use of the auditorium’s height occasionally; its whiteness allows it to be used as something of a canvas for Matt Haskins’ lighting design to vividly colour. Dan Balfour’s sound design closes everyone in, and takes the whole audience on Simon’s journey.
Peter Elliott has worked with the company as a Chimpanzee Physicality & Vocalisation Consultant, with impressive results. The actors’ movements are instantly recognisable as those of our primate cousins and the vocalisations seem to come very naturally, from the aggressive cries down to the quieter grunts.
John Cummins is particularly entertaining in his several roles (especially Busner’s research assistant Gambol and coprophiliac David Grebovic), and Ruth Lass is extremely likeable as the eminent Dr Busner – this is a great example of cross-casting. Bryan Dick leads well as Simon, portraying the constant whirl of emotions he suffers with a great deal of relatability and sensitivity; it is fascinating to see his performance develop as his character starts to change.