Arcola playwright talks insatiable bonobos and species supremacism in Will Self’s Great Apes

Great Apes at the Arcola theatre. Picture: Nick Rutter

Great Apes at the Arcola theatre. Picture: Nick Rutter - Credit: Archant

The story sees Turner Prize-winning YBA artist Simon Dykes wake up after a wild night of drugs, booze and sex to find himself and his girlfriend have become apes, running at the Arcola until April 21


Chimpanzee - Credit: Getty Images

“If you’re expecting furry costumes and coconut mouths you’ll be disappointed,” says playwright Patrick Marmion.

His adaptation of Will Self’s 1997 novel Great Apes at the Arcola this month uses puppetry and stylised movement to portray a world where chimps have evolved to be the dominant species.

“The tricky thing was how to show the humans acting as chimps,” says the Kensal Rise writer. “We’ve hired a specialist movement coach and the actors use a kind of hybrid humanzee in their gestures and gait - although the experience of watching them is more human than zee.

“There is also a human puppet. It works on different levels theatrically, it should be a bit spooky, a bit David Lynch, ‘what is this world?’ In Shakespeare you have a boy playing a woman referring to herself as a boy. That kind of ambiguity is innately theatrical.”

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The story sees Turner Prize-winning YBA artist Simon Dykes wake up after a wild night of drugs, booze and sex to find himself and his girlfriend have become apes. Taken to hospital under the psychotic delusion that he’s human, he is under the care of charismatic radical Chimp psychiatrist Zack Busner, a recurring character in Self’s novels. Marmion says the story echoes themes from his last Arcola play The Divided Laing, about visionary psychiatrist RD Laing who lived in Belsize Park in the 1960s. Indeed Marmion’s Busner lives in Hampstead where part of the play is set in his “designer kitchen that’s all empty minimalism”.

“Zack Busner was based on Laing and he’s the kind of radical free-spirited existential psychiatrist I had written about before with similar therapeutic methods and an interest in exploring the psyche rather than medicating it,” says Marmion.

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Set between kitchen, art gallery, and hospital, the first 10 minutes evoke the book’s disorienting opening of showing Dyke’s breakdown from the inside.

Marmion says sexual anxiety is implicated in his mental confusion, and the transformed world’s social structure is all chimp - from incest and polygamy to group sex.

Will Self

Will Self - Credit: Archant

“You have a libidinous Bonobo’s enthusiasm for sex but how do we stage politicially correct chimp sex?” he asks. “It’s a challenge.”

Self, who fully supports the adaptation, wrote the book after becoming fascinated by zoology and primates.

“He was interested in the idea that within his lifetime, our nearest living relatives on earth with whom we share 96percent of our DNA, might be wiped out by us,” says Marmion,

“He speculates on how this would leave us a lonely species. A lot of the book was prescient - it didn’t require much updating - 50 years ago there were around two million chimps in the wild, today it’s about 300,000.”

Self was also interested in species supremacism.

“We are all superior creationists,” says Marmion.“We profess Darwinism, yet we stick ourselves at the top of the evolutionary tree because we see animals as being other than ourselves. It’s this idea of being strangers in our own bodies, of not being able to apprehend ourselves as animals. Will wanted to reaquaint people with their species.”

With actors walking on all fours with the help of crutches, he hopes to remind the audience: “We are just animals but we bury it and disown it. We see it as the normal order to be in control (of our animality) rather than it being in control of us. But when we look into an ape’s eyes, we see ourselves looking back.”

Marmion makes comic hay with the playful side of the reversals in Self’s mirror world.

Great Apes

Great Apes - Credit: Archant

“It’s funny,” he says. “The great thing about Will is he has a tremendous facility with language and a really powerful intellect and imagination which can run an idea to ground.

“He gave me a free option to develop the script and is happy for the book to have a future.”

But while some see the story as an ecological warning, a satire on the art world or a study of mental illness, it is Dyke’s struggle to “get back to being human” that most fascinates Marmion.

“I am more interested in it as an existential journey or a parable of what it means to be a human being.”

Will Self on Great Apes

In a note to mark the stage adaptation of his book, Will Self writes: “In the early 1990s I was reading a lot of books about zoology, ethology and primatology. I became insidiously aware of an existentially queasy fact: humanity’s closest living relative – the chimpanzee – would most likely become extinct, in the wild, within my lifetime. We can take a blood transfusion from a chimpanzee, so closely are we related – while chimps themselves fashion tools, indulge in politics and symbolic representation.

It became my objective to write the ape satire that would mark our annihilation of our near-conspecific: a prolonged and clamorous howl of approaching species-loneliness.

My tactics were to pile detail-upon-detail of chimp/human physical correspondence, until my readers had no option but to accept the reality of their kinship. While I was writing ‘Great Apes’ I practiced the method and knuckle-walked around the place, occasionally drumming on surfaces and giving vent to tremendous pant-hoots. Fortunately I lived alone at the time and in deep country.

Since the novel’s publication from time to time a reader has told me of an uncanny experience; looking up from its pages at the strap-hangers surrounding them on the tube, they’ve been transported to their own aboriginal estate.

And, yes I’ve been pleased by this. But if satire aims at the moral reform of society – and in this case, the reform of all human society, then my novel has manifestly not been a success. Twenty-two years on, we’re only that much closer to the moment when the deoxyribonucleic ladder connecting us to the rest of the living world is kicked away, and, like some idiotic cartoon species, we’re left, our myriad bare legs fervidly bicycling for a few moments, until we plunge into the void. Which is why I’m delighted that my novel has been adapted for the stage.

Perhaps a more kinetic medium will finally drive the message home hard – like a flung handful of faeces: those who do not remember to live in the full light of their animality, may well be doomed to die by it.

Great Apes runs at the Arcola Theatre until April 21.

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