Arts Review Theatre

★★★★★ Review: Chimpanzee by Nick Lehane

The hell of animal experimentation is keenly felt in this devastating work of puppet theatre.

The beauty of puppetry lies in how easily we project our own feelings onto an object, given breath and life through puppeteers. And for animal puppets in particular, there is a dual layer of suspension of disbelief required, where not only do the puppeteers have to create empathy for a puppet, but also, a non-human character.

As difficult as this sounds, Nick Lehane’s Chimpanzee does this incredibly well, in the form of a nonverbal memory play. Based on real life experiments conducted in the United States, Chimpanzee tells the story of a chimpanzee kept in a biomedical facility, reminiscing about better days raised in a human home.

The set-up for Chimpanzee is relatively stark, with only a single table onstage, and three puppeteers in black puppeteering a single chimpanzee. Central to this performance is the puppet’s design and performance, where the chimpanzee showcases more than enough elements to help us believe in its realism, from its size that emphasises to its versatile joints, including fingers that can clench and grab onto objects, while remaining abstract enough in its details for us to fill in the blanks with our imagination.

In performing the chimpanzee, puppeteers Josh Rice, Andy Manjuck, and Emma Wiseman form an effective trio who work well as a team, each taking charge of limbs and neck due to its large size. There is strong onstage chemistry between all three, carefully coordinating their actions such that the chimpanzee’s movements appear natural, and imbuing it with clear emotion, whether frustration and anger as she beats and rages at her invisible cage, or bringing across a tipsy, stumbling state when she ingests some wine. Quite simply, even watching the chimpanzee climbing feels like a feat of well-rehearsed puppetry, making us think about the complexity of anatomical coordination as she swings gracefully from tree to tree.

The play’s effectiveness also lies in its structure, where it shifts between the chimpanzee stuck in captivity, and her time in a human home in the outside world. The contrast between both these times in her life is clearly felt, thanks to Marika Kent’s lighting design, where in the fluorescent, artificial and blindingly white light biomedical facility feels cold and harsh, darkness all around, while the human home has a clear sense of warmth and ‘natural’ lighting, replicating sunlight. Little details, like the shadow of a window projected onto the table, or flickering lights to raise the tension and fear, are also appreciated in the dense world-building Chimpanzee employs.

In a similar vein, Kate Marvin’s dynamic sound design is also key to helping us imagine the chimpanzee’s living conditions. Mapped to specific speakers, we can clearly imagine a human walking from one side of the stage to another when we hear the moving footsteps, while the volume of natural soundscapes are properly calibrated that they feel appropriately distanced from the chimpanzee, be it laughing children at the bottom of a tree, or the cries of other suffering animals all around the facility.

With all these design and performance elements set up, we easily find ourselves immersed in the world of the chimpanzee and her memories, and feel her pain and devastation in the facility. Each time we flash back to a simpler time, we are filled with hope, and understand the deep underlying humanity she possesses, whether it’s cradling a human baby doll, or the way she is taught to ‘read’ a book. Small movements, like the feeling of shock at hearing the lid of a box slam shut, or swatting at flies, only adds to the believability that this puppet truly contains a little life, and when she inevitably returns to the hell of her cage, the mood takes a complete dip into despair, and we feel her pain, slamming against the bars.

What is most impressive about the performance is how, despite the structure being repetitive, there is always something new the puppeteers introduce in each scene that makes it feel like there is a forward momentum to it, a new surprise to make us admire the art of puppetry. An errant balloon floats up and we watch the chimpanzee play with it before becoming despondent as it disappears into the sky, while at one point, as the chimpanzee struggles against the cage, the puppeteers physically react as if they themselves are being elbowed or head-butted, making us cheer on the chimpanzee as we pray and hope she finally escapes her confines.

Ultimately, Chimpanzee reaches an epic climax, where the stage itself is shaken up and transformed. It finally feels as if we can breathe easy, that her life might well and truly return to ‘normalcy’. Alas, Chimpanzee does not go down the happy ending route, and hits us with grim reality, and by its end, we are left with a sobering finale that leaves a clear message – animals do not exist for us to experiment with, and deserve a better life. An incredible feat of imagination, design and puppetry skill, coming together to produce an intimate, affecting work of art that proves just how powerful puppetry is as a medium.

Photo Credit: Richard Termine

Chimpanzee plays from 26th to 28th May 2023 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets and more information available here

Flipside 2023 runs from 26th May to 4th June 2023 at the Esplanade. Full programme and tickets available here

Production Credits:

Creator, Director, Puppet and Set Designer: Nick Lehane
Puppeteers: Josh Rice, Andy Manjuck, and Emma Wiseman
Lighting Designer and Associate Set Designer: Marika Kent
Lighting Associate: Jonathan Cottle
Sound Designer: Kate Marvin
Associate Sound Designer and Stage Manager: Avery Orvis

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