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Great Apes, Arcola, review: ‘Visually stimulating but the satiric purpose of the fantasy wanes’

PUBLISHED: 16:54 20 March 2018 | UPDATED: 16:54 20 March 2018

Great Apes at the Arcola Theatre

Great Apes at the Arcola Theatre

© Nick Rutter

Part parable, part social satire, Self’s deadpan novel, written in his famously convoluted style, explores the whimsical premise that apes are the dominant species with humans our endangered cousins.

“For all our superiority the only characteristic setting us apart from humans is perhaps self-importance,” says a naturalist ape in Patrick Marmion’s ambitious adaptation of Will Self’s 1997 novel Great Apes.

Part parable, part social satire, Self’s deadpan novel, written in his famously convoluted style, explores the whimsical premise that apes are the dominant species with humans our endangered cousins. Director Oscar Pearce layers in puppetry and movement to bolster the play’s metaphorical resonance in a production that’s repetitive, overloaded with urban references and too taken with the novel’s cool style.

The first 10 minutes evokes the novel’s disorientating opening in a series of brief, brutal scenes set between an art gallery where YBA artist Simon Dykes is attending an opening night, the club where he meets his sexually voracious girlfriend and they take a heady cocktail of drugs, and the hospital where he is sectioned and treated by a group of ape clinicians.

Played on a stripped back stage designed by Sarah Beaton featuring a large canvas onto which alienating urban lighting is projected, Simon’s existential meltdown is clearly, if predictably, presented. Where the production excels is the way details of simian behaviour are organically and wittily incorporated into the acting. Under the psychotic delusion that he’s human, Simon is put under the care of radical Chimp psychiatrist Zack Busner who references R.D Laing (the 60s psychiatrist dramatised in Marmion’s previous play The Divided Laing) as his professional inspiration.

Simon’s rehabilitation depends on his re-connecting with his animal self. Presenting one’s bottom is the height of elegance while random, public grooming, vocalising and casual violence are all deemed socially acceptable. Despite this being a present-day London where people drive Volvos and throwaway references to social media dominate aspirational circles, Simon must learn key new rules of interaction: embrace group sex and, above all, never concede social status.

Bryan Dick channels Simon’s mental confusion and paranoia well but doesn’t quite capture the insouciant charm of Self’s anti-hero. Ruth Lass is convincingly smug and ingratiating as Busner.

This is visually stimulating theatre but the satiric purpose of the fantasy wanes.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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