Wild East at the Young Vic review ***

Wild East

Young Vic Theatre, 13th February 2019

So after an hour spent in the florid company of an unraveling traveller couple courtesy of Cuzco at Theatre 503, followed by a hour lapping up the detail of natural and man-made beauty through the eyes of John Ruskin (The Power of Seeing at Two Temple Place – do go – it’s free and open late on Wednesdays) how would the Tourist’s day end?

In the bonkers company of April de Angelis. That’s how. You know how something turns out to be not quite what you expect. This hour or so was exactly that. What with her adaptation of My Brilliant Friend and The Village based on Lope de Veja’s Fuenteovejuna, as well as After Electra, (I haven’t seen her acclaimed play Jumpy), I have been much taken with Ms de Angelis’s work. So I signed up for Wild East reading that it was a satire on the corporate interview, (a comfortable space for a recovering running dog/capitalist lackey). I imagined something along the lines of Jordi Galceran’s play The Gronholm Method which went down well at the Menier Chocolate Factory last year.

Should probably have focussed more on the words “surreal”, “outlandish” and “human chaos”, and the reference to Ionesco, in the Young Vic blurb. For that about sums up Ms Angelis’s three hander which debuted at the Royal Court in 2005. Frank (Zach Wyatt) is plainly nervous as he begins his interview/evaluation with Dr Jacqueline Pitt (Lucy Briers) and Dr Marcia Gray (Kemi-Bo Jacobs). So was I as I realised the creatives weren’t joking when they indicated that this would be old-stool bench seating. The audience in the Clare is ranged around an entirely MDF set courtesy of Sarah Beaton. Nothing else. The Tourist managed to find a perch with some back support but there was still a palpable sense of WTF as the cast emerged from audience. As it turned out props, and in some cases bits of costume, also adopted the plywood aesthetic, though this shifted as the play developed.

Frank is an accidental anthropologist, keen to return to Russia, to help a nameless corporation further its greenwashing agenda. Dr Gray is a stiff-backed stickler for the bureaucratic selection “process”. Dr Pitt is unconvinced by Frank’s credentials but clearly has issues stemming from PTSD after a recent “accident” in Russia. Turns out the two women are past lovers and Frank a pawn in their personal battles even as they plead loyalty to the “bosses” that are watching them as they in turn decide who is next for the chop. Or something like that. The targets of April de Angelis’s ire come thick and fast: anthropology and psychology as marketing technique, “developing markets” environmental cover-ups, learned corporate behaviours, the subjugation of personal identity to organisational process, and so on. But it does get pretty messy and pretty weird, especially when it goes full-on shaman at the end.

These are entirely unbelievable characters so it is just as well that the cast play this up, with Zach Wyatt near mugging the audience with his comic portrayal of Frank, who journeys from nerd to willing yes-man, Kemi-Bo Jacobs sounding like she had just stepped out of a science programme from the 1950s as she tries to staunch her insecurity and Lucy Briers adopting a air of sardonic victimhood throughout. Lekan Lawal as director, (the recipient of this year’s Genesis prize), also runs with the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach to interpretation of the play, heightened by the use of microphones for key chunks of dialogue.

Another 90 minutes I wouldn’t have missed but another 90 minutes I won’t get back (nor will, literally, my back). Weird day. Still if you don’t want intellect or lumbar to be challenged you can always stay in and watch an interminable “realistic’ US box set on Netflix. Just like billions of other slack-jawed consumers.

Great Apes at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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Great Apes

Arcola Theatre, 31st March 2018

I sort of lost track with Will Self the author after The Book of Dave. His sprawling, satirical fantasies with a lot of big words, unreliable narratives and narrators, drugs, mental dislocation, is never short of imagination and ideas, but aren’t always that easy, or pleasurable, to read. He is very clever and very funny, and he knows it, and really likes to show it. His influences are many, and obvious, Ballard, Burroughs, Heller, and then back through Kafka, Joyce, Voltaire and Swift. I gather he too has given up on the novel, all of them, not just his.

I did enjoy Great Apes however and its successor How the Dead Live. Our protagonist, artist Simon Dykes (Simon/simian geddit), whose prime artistic concern is, surprise, surprise, perspective, wakes up after a bender to find his girlfriend, Sarah, is a chimpanzee. And so is everybody else. His human “delusion” means he is taken in by psychiatrist Zack Busner, Will Self’s stock character, here an alpha male chimp. From this transparent inversion Self shines a light on human, and chimpanzee behaviours, we’re not so different, and on the nature of mental illness and reality. Because the satire is so primitive, as it were, and has been done to death in those wretched Planet of the Apes films, Self has to concentrate his powers on the narrative and the characters in a way that sometimes escapes him in the other novels. By colliding chimpanzee and human society and culture, Self sheds light on our own behaviours, fears and dysfunctions. It is also adroitly pokes fun at our own human exceptionalism. London, drugs, mental illness, “false” narratives are all explored, as you would expect, but there also some affecting exploration of relationships, which you don’t really expect from the lugubrious Mr Self.

In short its is clever yes, but with a purpose, and it has a proper plot. How then to put it on stage. Well first break it down into the key scenes. Mr Self’s detailed imagining of this alternative society has to run alongside the story of Simon’s journey from human “reality” through “delusion” and eventually to explanation, and Dr Busner’s rise and fall. To get it on to the Arcola stage needed some perspicacious work from adapter Patrick Marmion, which we have. It also needed the creative team of director Oscar Pearce, designer Sarah Beaton, lighting designer Matt Haskins, sound designer Dan Balfour, movement director Jonnie Riordan, costume supervisor Kate Hemstock and the puppetry team of Tom Espiner and Mala Kirkman-Richards, to combine to reveal enough to allow our imaginations to do the rest. In this they succeeded, a remarkable achievement given limitations of space and budget.

Perhaps the most important technical contribution however came from chimpanzee physicality and vocalisation consultant Peter Elliott. Now I will stake a wild guess that there aren’t too many people with that particular job title. His bio shows that he has worked on a number of major films involving primates, real and imagined, and, most remarkably, it says he became the first ever person to integrate with the colony of chimps at the University of Oklahoma.

I am also guessing the cast has down too much auditioning for primate work in the past. The way they combined voice, body and the simple props, benches, ladders and specialised crutches, (not sure if they have a special name), to simulate chimpanzee movement, sound and behaviour, was really impressive. Whilst Bryan Dick playing Simon and Ruth Lass playing Dr Zack, that’s right, in a piece of inspired casting we had a woman playing the alpha male here just to mess up our heads a bit more, the other five actors doubled up, or more. Yep they had to take on the character of not just one but several different chimpanzees. I was particularly struck by the performance of Ruth Everett as Busner’s assistant Jane Bowen, artist Tabitha Buckfast and Eve Knight, a film-maker.

Now I will admit with so much to pack in there were times when ambition overreached execution. Some of the plot had to be chivvied along especially towards the end. To have covered everything in the book would have been technically and dramatically impossible, and some of the intelligent subtleties and artistic allusion of the book gets a bit lost along the way.

Still you will end the evening definitely entertained, in awe of the technical achievement and with plenty to think about even if you may not entirely connect to the characters. Then again they’re chimps aren’t they? How would you connect to them? They’re animals aren’t they? They’re not as special as us are they what with out technology, language and civilisation?