The chimp brain takes over

Dr Anna Waters, Lead Psychologist for Performing Arts, at Chimp Management Ltd, encounters Great Apes at the Arcola Theatre in London.

Patrick Marmion’s adaptation of Will Self’s 1997 novel Great Apes is a funny, gripping and unnervingly original reflection on humanity’s place in the evolutionary chain.

After a wild night of drinking and drugs, Turner Prize-winning artist Simon Dykes wakes up to find that his world has changed beyond recognition. His girlfriend, Sarah, has turned into a chimpanzee. And to his horror, so has everyone else. Immediately rushed to Charing Cross Hospital, Simon is taken into the care of charismatic radical psychiatrist Dr Zack Busner and treated for being under the psychotic delusion that he’s human.

The play starts with fast-paced, loud and dramatic scenes, setting the tone for the rest of the play. Sarah Beaton’s minimalistic stage design, with scenes switching from pulsating nightclub to hospital psychiatric ward in seconds, is impressive. Dan Balfour’s excellent sound design is a prominent feature of the play and helps to heighten the feeling of uncertainty and fear in a world ruled by chimpanzees. 

I was interested to see how the chimpanzees would be brought to life and the play achieves this triumphantly through harem pants, short crutches and bowed legs. One of the highlights of the staging is the incredible chimpanzee vocals, with the actors crying out in pant-hoots. This characterisation is thanks to contribution from movement director Jonnie Riordan and chimpanzee physicality and vocalisation consultant Peter Elliott (amazing job title!). 

The play balances humour with serious questions, all of which seems particularly pertinent in today’s society. Removing the barriers of society and allowing the chimps to be in charge, the play offers debate on areas around mental health, sexuality, gender hierarchies, gender bending, the NHS, and psychiatry. The production offers the audience a fresh perspective and a chance to reflect and question some of our social customs, boundaries and rules.

Oscar Pearce makes a great debut as a director and I was particularly impressed with the cast of seven actors, who covered nearly 20 parts. Ruth Lass stands out as the Alpha male psychiatrist chimp Dr Zack Busner. It’s a great choice to cast an actress in this role, and the decision serves to highlight how farcical all the male posturing and gender hierarchies are. As well as being able to pant-hoot like a real chimpanzee, and ferociously bite a colleague who dares challenged him/heron the arm, Lass brings a nurturing caring quality to the role. This is highlighted at the end of Act I in Dr Busner’s kitchen, when Zack and Simon share some sloes and the latter begins asking questions about his new environment – you can sense a real bond forming between doctor and patient. During this part of the play, Simon is staying at Dr Busner’s home. Watching this as a psychologist, I felt uncomfortable – it prompted me to think about patient and practitioner boundaries.

Indeed, during the evening I found myself frequently reflecting on the way we practice as psychologists. I work with Professor Steve Peters and use his Chimp Model in my sessions with clients. The Chimp Model greatly simplifies the neuroscience and explains how the mind can be seen as having three teams, each with their own agenda and way of working. The Human (you) is mainly based in the frontal lobe, associated with logical thinking and working with facts and truth. The Chimp, mainly based in the limbic system, is an independent emotional thinking machine that works with feelings and impressions. There is also the Computer, spread throughout the brain, which is a storage area for programmed thoughts and behaviours. Great Apes gives an opportunity for us to see what it could be like if the emotional thinking part of our brains (our Chimps) were allowed to take over and rule society. 

I did wonder whether it would have been more powerful to explore the differences that a society ruled by chimpanzees might bring, rather than the similarities (the chimps discuss issues in a rational way, drive cars and become famed psychiatrists). My friend and I were left feeling that whilst the play was captivating, impressive and thought provoking, it lacked a little depth and feeling. Perhaps it attempts to touch too many different areas. But overall, I would highly recommend going to see the production.

-  Reviewed by Dr Anna Waters, Lead Psychologist for Performing Arts, at Chimp Management Ltd

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