‘Chimpanzee’, by Nick Lehane

Review from: Barbican Centre, London International Mime Festival; 22nd January 2020

As part of the London international Mime Festival, I saw the UK premiere of Chimpanzee at the Barbican in London. Read on to find out why this puppet show review is included on a site for circus shows…

With a harsh buzz, a neon light illuminates a 3ft table that is to be the stage. A single strip bulb runs the length and perfectly frames it, leaving everywhere else in total darkness. A sleeping chimpanzee lies on the table. We watch as it stirs, wakes and looks up into the light. It begins to pace. The noises of the room are suddenly clearer: the chattering and screeching of apes, footsteps, metal clangs of cages and wire and, of course, the ever constant buzz of the light. These noises become louder and louder until they are so all consuming our chimpanzee rocks back and forth, head in its hands. Then, in an instant, just as it reaches its peak, the unbearable torment of the noise and small space is abruptly halted. Stillness and sunlight bathe the table, the sounds of tweeting birds, the breeze. It becomes an endless space, conveyer belt like, as the chimpanzee goes bounding forward, allowing a very clever running on the spot technique to be expertly executed. Our chimpanzee explores this seemingly now limitless world in all directions. We are treated to the full exploration of a human home, teapots, baths, silk scarves and toy ducks are all beautifully examined and enjoyed by our chimp. But after every object encountered, each moment of calm and joy, we are pulled back into the horrors of the cage, until the chimp can again escape into its mind once more to reminisce and explore. And so the see-sawing effect of the performance goes. Happy to sad, rage to boredom. Cage to freedom.

Nick Lehane, the director and creator of the play has made something truly special here. He uses real life stories of chimps brought up in normal households across America, and the tales of their lives in biomedical labs after they become no longer cute manageable pets. Piecing moments together from multiple sources represents the experience of so many chimps across the world who are currently living confined to these spaces.

The puppet chimpanzee has a very natural look and simplistic design; there are no mechanical elements and the face is fixed, and smaller parts like fingers are simply enacted by the puppeteers. It is similar in many ways to Bunraku, a Japanese style of multi-operator puppets traditionally controlled by three puppeteers – one for the feet, one for the hips and arm, and finally one for the arm and head – constantly giving the puppet full body movement and weight. It is this weight and accurate movement that builds a believable ape in front of our very eyes, the sculptural detail is not needed here due to the overall movement being so good. Some particularly delightful moments involve hanging from a door that then swings open, and sitting on a fence observing a balloon pass by. 

Photo of a chimpanzee puppet looking at a yellow balloon. The stage background is very dark, so the puppeteers are invisible except for a hand at each elbow joint and another at the neck of the puppet. The puppet looks like it's made of wood, but has realistic proportions.
‘Chimpanzee’ by Nick Lehane IMAGE: Richard Termine

Without revealing too much of the show, a very interesting device towards the finale sees the puppeteers themselves represent walls of the cage. It is very exciting to watch – puppetry fans will delight at the genius of the technique.

The puppeteers here are happy to switch from operating a hand to operating a foot, and vice versa. To me this seems to embody the true ease we witness real apes use to examine objects and swing through the trees. Puppeteers Rowan Magee, Andy Manjuck and Emma Wiseman give this chimp a depth of emotion through considered movement that will surely see them compared to the War Horse team by many. Only those who have studied and observed these animals can pull off this much of a believable performance. The bravery to let the puppet ‘speak for itself’ in many instances – to let go of an arm completely so that it hangs and swings by its side – does wonders for its gait. Then to let it lie almost motionless as it sleeps… it is sometimes in these stillest moments the audience is able to stare deeply at the puppet and read so, so much into its life.

The lighting and sound design should also be applauded. With no dialogue and very few props it is with light that we are able to understand the crossing from real world into the chimp’s memory, and an often harsh sound that pulls us back again to the cage. So perfectly has the language of the lights been laid out for the audience that when the passing of several days, weeks, months is shown, all that is needed is a flashing light.

Photo of a life-sized chimp puppet standing on a blue table, reaching its arms up towards a blue neon strip light above its head. The three puppeteers are in the shadows behind, eyes focused on the puppet. Two stand at either side, holding the puppet's elbows. The other man is low in the centre, holding the puppet's feet at either side of him. One of the puppet's legs is raised as if climbing a ladder.
Rowan Magee, Andy Manjuck, and Emma Wiseman in ‘Chimpanzee’, by Nick Lehane IMAGE: Richard Termine

The show is excellent, but it is most certainly a puppet show. Not a circus show. It does, however, raise an important question for all those out there creating and watching circus: If an object can be brought to life to represent an animal, and can be entertaining, make us laugh, make us cry, make us feel, then why is there any need to have real animals in circus?

Without straying too far into debate on the subject, often the appeal of animal performance is simply for audiences to view the animal. After all, it was once so rare to see these creatures. But now we can see them everyday, on high definition screens, over and over and whenever we like, which somehow has removed the novelty of seeing them in the ring. Accordingly, it’s gradually becoming more and more difficult to support animals in circus.

I see this as a good thing. Far more impressive than seeing a real chimpanzee paraded out into a ring and then walked around, maybe to ride a tricycle, is to actually see humans bring something to life and convincingly convey a chimpanzee as if by magic. Skill, novelty and risk are all things circus needs, and certainly Chimpanzee displays those.

For me, good puppetry does what all circus does: makes you believe in the possibilities of humans, through training, practise and dedication to a physical craft. Whether that craft is flying trapeze, juggling or puppeteering the perfect rolling movement of a big cat on the prowl, these should all be welcomed in the circus.

My hope is that in a few years, puppetry – along with many other new and old technologies, like holograms and film – will see the live circus animal fade away, removing the guilt and questionable morality that those acts can bring upon an audience. Some companies have already caught on, creating beautiful puppet elephants and horses, even giant bugs. We see now that apes are also possible, and there could be no limits to the animals puppets can convey – realistically, like in Chimpanzee, or artistically, like in The Lion King. It’s time to really explore what puppetry can do for circus and vice versa, to help our traditions shift with modern times.

Certainly puppets are not the end-all answer to the animals in circus debate, as there are many factors at play. But, after seeing them performed so well here, I cannot deny they offer a step in the right direction.

Online programme notes are linked here

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