The Gorilla play: a bitter disappointment

After a decade of performances from the greatest cultural icon ever to grace The Fringe, the outdoor immersive version of A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking on a Rocking Chair for Fifty-Six Minutes Then Leaves produced for lockdown is such a let-down.

Edinburgh Fringe punters like to boast about which up-and-coming act they saw before they made it big, but even those who saw the breakthrough performances of Steve Coogan, Graham Norton and Phoebe Waller-Bridge turn green with envy when hearing from someone who’s seen the legendary play A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking on a Rocking Chair for Fifty-Six Minutes Then Leaves. Ever since artistic genius Liam El Groog’s seminal performance in 2009 with the elegance of Shakespeare, wit of Wilde and adrenalin rush of Tarantino, tickets have been like gold dust; and with just one performance per fringe, they are snapped up within minutes of release. It is rumoured that Kate Copstick was turned away one year after being caught handing over a four-figure sum on the black market, and the less said about the punch-up between Lyn Gardner and Brian Logan over the only press ticket, the better.

But whilst few have been lucky enough to see it in person, illicit footage smuggled out of the venue reveals it’s everything it’s cracked up to be, and more. The beauty of A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking on a Rocking Chair for Fifty-Six Minutes Then Leaves is that is it does exactly what it says. El Goog, clad in his outfit of a Gorilla – who in turn purports to be a male senior citizen by use of flat cap and pipe – takes his seat in a rocking chair. But does not just sit in a rocking chair, but instead he sits rocking in a rocking chair. Until, after almost an hour, he just leaves. What does it mean? David Attenborough describes it as a hard-hitting account of the humiliations we inflict on our primate cousins; Lucy Worsley interprets the sequence as an ingenious juxtaposition of evolution with craftsmanship; whilst Brian Cox lauds the variety of chair-rocking techniques employed as a fascinating exploration of rotational dynamics, up there with Gallileo’s model of the solar system. Or maybe it is combination of all of these. One thing is certain: no two people amongst the spellbound audience interpret the play in the same way.

And so, when the pandemic hit, and artists were forced to explore new ways of connecting audiences, there was much excitement over what this man would do (if Liam El Goog is indeed a young man – the way that undercuts the veracity of our perceptions being one of the most underrated achievements of the story). Would he find a new and innovative way to reach out to a new audience beyond the cramped confines of a studio space? Finally, a chance for the thousands, maybe millions, of people unable to get a coveted live performance, to experience for themselves the sight of a young man dressed as a gorilla dressed as an old man sitting rocking in a rocking chair for fifty-six minute then leaving. But sadly, a series of ill-judged decisions on how to present this masterpiece through cyberspace has squandered this golden opportunity, and – I’m afraid to say – left his reputation in tatters.

The original mistake was to reinvent the intimate performance as an open-air immersive piece. Liam may be the up there with Shakespeare and Pinter, but for all his glory, I fear he underestimates the impact of the cramped confines his live performance offered. In Voodoo Room, one cannot escape the feeling the gorilla is trapped, just as we are all trapped. What can this young man dressed as a gorilla dressed as an old man do other than sit rocking in a rocking chair for fifty-six minutes? And when he leaves, can he even go anywhere? It truly pains me to say this, but without this dynamic, a young man dressed as a gorilla dressed as an old man sitting rocking in a rocking chair – and after fifty-six minute, leaving – has to be taken at face value. It makes absolutely no sense.

Then there is the deeply misguided concept of re-establishing a relationship between young man dressed as gorilla dressed as old man and the wider world. There is no denying the most powerful element of the play is the trust and understanding between El Goog and the audience he has built up. The gamble to replace this with ordinary members of the public backfired horrendously; far from being spellbound, they just go about their day. The odd person stands and gawps, and a child asks “Is that a monkey mummy?” but this came across as pedestrian, and quite frankly banal. And just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, there’s this botched attempt to break the fourth wall with some sort of interview. I understand this was a collaboration with a comedy news website, so I presume this was a set-up for some sort of punchline, but whatever the joke was supposed to be, it fell flat.

Finally – and I know I’m going to get some flak from the hard-core gorilla fans for this – we do have to explore some of the more problematic aspects of this routine. The transplant to a new medium was an opportunity to identify what has become outdated and objectionable. In 2009, all sorts of appalling practices were going with TV personalities and movie moguls and racist statues – but even though this has all come out in the open, this young man dressed as a gorilla dressed as an old man carries on, as if nothing has happened, and nothing needs to change. The one nod to a changing world was the use of a mask, but it is a time when countless elderly people are forced to shield, mask or no mask. The sight of an old man played by a gorilla played by a young man sitting rocking in a rocking chair outside in a park must be deeply hurtful to the millions currently denied this simple pleasure.

So, what does this tell us? Well, I’m sorry to say this, but I think it is time to put this tired franchise to rest. Don’t get me wrong – this play has done more to revolutionise culture that Damien Hirst’s spot paintings and John Cage’s Four Minutes and Thirty-three Seconds put together. But the pandemic has laid bare that this format has nowhere to go that isn’t stale and predictable. Maybe, just maybe, we should forget about leaving after fifty-six minutes and instead have the departure after fifty-seven minutes. Or even fifty-five. Or perhaps we should explore what happens if, instead of a young man dressed as a gorilla dressed as a old man, we have an old man dressed as a young man dressed as a gorilla. Or even a gorilla dressed an old man dressed a a young man. If we want to be really daring, maybe the protagonist could sit without rocking. Or to really shock the audience – when the time comes to leave and the countdown reaches zero – one could just remain seated.

Liam El Goog himself could also do with a brand makeover. The name itself is just sooo pre-2009. Perhaps he should reinvent himself with a more relevant and modern name like Liam G. At its peak, this play was an ingenious device that created a five-way relationship between a primate, observers, a contemplation of mortality, angular momentum and the search for an escape. Now, it’s nothing but a young man dressed as a gorilla dressed as an old man sitting rocking in a rocking chair for fifty-six minutes then leaving. It’s a crying shame that A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking on a Rocking Chair for Fifty-Six Minutes Then Leaves has come to this.

Update: Happy April fool’s day.

Hats off to Robert Peacock for the inspiration provided with this review.

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