Review – Great Apes at the Arcola

Joe Irwin review Great Apes at the Arcola - a world where chimpanzees are the dominant species and humans live in zoos.

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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

Patrick Marmion’s adaptation of Will Self’s 1997 novel Great Apes is an understated yet profound reflection on man’s place in the evolutionary chain.

After a night of alcohol, ecstasy and cocaine-fuelled revelry, Turner Prize-winning artist Simon Dykes wakes up to a world where chimpanzees are the dominant species and humans live in zoos. He is told that he is a chimp himself and is sectioned when he insists that he is a human.

In this world, doctors walk on all fours, co-workers greet each other by presenting their backsides, disputes are settled with violent assertions of dominance, excitement is expressed by “pant-hooting” and banging knuckles against hard surfaces, and consorts mate in public.  

Bryan Dick leads the cast as the emotionally disturbed artist who becomes the pet project of his eccentric chimp psychiatrist. He is a broken man with a broken family who is desperate to escape to his own reality and be reunited with his children. He steadily begins to conform to chimp standards, leaving the audience wondering whether he really is just a deluded chimp.   

After a night of alcohol, ecstasy and cocaine-fuelled revelry, Simon Dykes wakes up to a world where chimpanzees are the dominant species and humans live in zoos. Credit: Arcola Theatre

Dick maps Simon’s unknowing (re-)assimilation into chimp culture with seamless delicacy. He begins the process defiantly human, standing up straight and demanding he wear trousers before gradually arching his back, bending his knees and spontaneously pant-hooting.

His reunion with his chimp family is arguably the most convincing and moving section of the entire production. Placing his arms around his two imaginary offspring, he weeps into their invisible faces, mapping out Simon’s combined grief, frustration, confusion, anger and relief in one or maybe two heart-wrenching moments.

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He is given brilliant support by Ruth Everett and Ruth Lass as his well-meaning and fascinated chimp psychiatrists.

In many ways, the play’s narrative revolves more so around Lass’s maverick chimp scientist. Dr Zack Busner takes Simon under his wing and commits to curing his so-called delusion. Lass is certainly the comedic centre of the play. Her voice is husky and assured, she moves with might and authority and cunningly pinpoints the exquisite ironies that riddle her gender-bending, trans-species portrayal.

Well meaning and fascinated chimp psychiatrists. Credit: Arcola Theatre

Director Oscar Pearce has done a lot with very little in this production. The stage is nigh on bare with the exception of two climbable pillars and a large white screen. Time-changes and emotional switches are marked via music, lighting and off-the-wall choreography. Chimps are identifiable only by their chocolate brown jumpsuits and obvious body language.

However, Patrick Marmion’s script does leave something to be desired. Very little is made of the scheme to overthrow Busner, and even less attention is paid to his possible connection to what brought on Simon’s ‘delusion’ in the first place. The play’s ambiguous final moments are clearly engineered to intrigue but, in fact, they leave the piece seeming unfinished and, in some ways, anti-climactic.

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This is a laugh-out-loud, surrealist comedy, peppered with lastingly poignant moments. It is an insightful and unnerving play about the hypocrisy of mankind and the irony of the many definitions we assign to the word “humanity”.

Great Apes runs at the Arcola Theatre until 21 April.