“Every time I do something it’s different” – Bryan Dick

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bryan dick
Bryan Dick starring in Great Apes at the Arcola

Bryan Dick, who is currently starring in Great Apes at the Arcola in Dalston, has agreed to meet me at 5pm.

I arrive at the theatre promptly, only to be met with a young woman who has no idea who Bryan Dick is (“Is he working here?”), no idea who I am, and even less of an idea how to bring the two of us together (“Do you have a number I could ring?”).

Thankfully, Dick isn’t the kind of man who waits for the world to be brought to him.  He emerges, coolly, from around a corner and introduces himself, calling me “man” and “mate” as if we are something other than complete strangers.  

Related: Review – Great Apes at the Arcola

He is wearing all blacks and greys, a hat and an earring. He is modest in both speech and posture. He almost hunches over his bottle of Pepsi Max as we discuss the previous night’s performance.

“Press nights are always strange,” he says. “Your mix of adrenaline and terror and trying to remember what you’re up to makes it a bit of blur.”

Despite the terror, he seems positive. “The audience seemed to respond well to it. But, I can’t remember much about it,” he laughs.

This isn’t a total surprise to him; he had a similar reaction when first given the play-script for Great Apes. In it he plays Simon Dykes, an artist who wakes up in a world dominated by chimpanzees, and is sectioned for believing he is human.

“Each time I do something, it’s different. every time I come into a project, I know I’m going to get something out of it”

“I was never sure whether Simon is a man surrounded by chimps, or if he’s a chimp believing he’s a man, and the ambiguity just seemed like a fairly whacky thing to have to bring to life.  

“Also, I enjoy movement theatre and I knew there was going to be a lot of that.”

The cast spend the majority of the play either on all-fours, or with knees bent and back arched (“Our legs are all shot to sh*t”).

Gradually, Simon’s movements (d)evolve as he begins to appear more chimp than man.

The “movement” aspect of the performance may have come more naturally to Dick than other members of the cast. He initially wanted to be a dancer, having grown up watching Fred Astaire films.

“I trained in classical ballet but I was never going to go anywhere with it,” he says. “I wasn’t very good. It’s a hugely disciplined career path and art form. You have to work so hard and I just fell out of love with it.”

Luckily, he much prefers acting. “Each time I do something, it’s different. And I have to pick up a new skills set, and I have to figure out new things, and I have to work with a completely new group of people who might work in a totally different way. So, every time I come into a project, I know that I’m going to get something out of it.”

arcola theatre great apes
Great Apes is the disturbing and hilarious story of a Turner Prize-winning artist, undergoing treatment for a psychotic delusion that he’s human. Credit: Arcola Theatre

Great Apes is adapted by Patrick Marmion from Will Self’s 1997 novel of the same name. Dick says that Self attended the first read-through: “He came in and started pant-hooting and doing an impression of a chimp. He seems like a fun guy.”

But Dick didn’t read the book. “I decided not to read the book when I got the script,” he says. “I might have ended up wanting things from the book to go in, or wanting to lose things from the script. I’ll read it when we finish.”

I wonder how much his decision to take on this role (or any role) is determined by his need to work, as opposed to his affinity with a character.

“It depends on what state your career is in at that point in time. There are times in an actor’s career where they can pick and choose, there are times when they can’t. In this instance, I really liked the script. I really like Oscar [Pearce, director] and it seemed like an exciting thing to do.”

It certainly appears as if Dick is a member of the latter group of actors. He was signed by an agent after graduating from LAMDA and has been working steadily in film, television, theatre and radio since the 90s.  

“I was never sure whether Simon is a man surrounded by chimps, or if he’s a chimp believing he’s a man”

He notably played the opposite role to Russell Crowe in Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which he describes as “a real life-changer”.

“The first time I did the read-through we were all there and we were all a bit nervous. And then [Crowe] himself walks in and you do…”. He mimes his initial reaction. His spine stiffens and his eyes are wide.

“I was nervous. But, then as soon as you start doing the work together, you’re just two actors trying to make the scene work. So it quickly becomes about that and not any sort of starry stuff… [Crowe is] a real get-his-hands-dirty kind of actor.”

He also played Ernie Wise in the Morecambe and Wise television biopic Eric & Ernie, a role that left him equally “proud” and “terrified”. Not least because he was working with the late, great Victoria Wood.

“She produced it [and] she came up with the idea,” he says with admiration. “She was a fantastic woman. [She was] a real perfectionist, and a real genius, and had real vision.

“She just knew what she was doing. [She’d say:] ‘If you do this and make it a little bit more precise like that, then it’ll be brilliant’. And you’d do it and it’d be brilliant.”

As we come to the end of our time together, I ask what he expects an audience will take away from this production.

I focus on telling the story and I suppose whatever the audience takes away the audience takes away.

“Our legs are all shot to sh*t”

“There are definite themes that Will Self wanted to put across. The idea that we are killing our closest animal relative, to him, is horrifying,” he says.

“What makes you better than a chimpanzee? The fact that you have a culture, and clothes, and you drive a car? How does that make your life any more valuable? It doesn’t. But, we’ve done that. We’ve played that trick on ourselves.”