Kafka’s Monkey (Online review)

Kafka’s Monkey (Online review)

Having spent some of the previous day in Kafka’s world (click here) I thought I’d return for a second instalment As we are repeatedly being told currently, two doses of something is more efficacious than one – although I’m not so sure about the twelve week gap. Of course, in terms of output Kafka wasn’t that prolific. The one actual play he wrote, the dire The Warden Of The Tomb, didn’t see the light of day until well after his death; it’s one piece that could usefully have been put on the literary bonfire required of his executor Max Brod who ignored his friend’s dying wish. However, Kafka’s other work has always been ripe for stage adaptation and both Metamorphosis and The Trial have appeared under more than one guise. The latest piece to cross my radar is an adaptation of his short story A Report To An Academy.

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This was actually recorded at the Young Vic back in 2009 and is a solo piece by the extraordinary Kathryn Hunter. Retitled Kafka’s Monkey by adaptor Colin Teevan it’s a monologue from Red Peter, an ape who has learned the ways of humankind following capture and incarceration and is now giving an address to a group of learned scholars – in this case the audience. Red Peter – so named after the scar sustained whilst being hunted down – turns out to be an erudite and philosophically minded simian. Language and other human traits have been learned during an enforced voyage in a cage on a ship returning to “civilisation”. The unwitting tutors, the sailing crew, have imparted to the ape the power of speech and some rather less savoury habits such as spitting. In the course of the presentation to the academy much is revealed about the base nature of human and ape kind and amply demonstrates how closely related they are. In particular, Red Peter cannot resist the urge to hang from ladders, pick fleas from audience members and make high pitched chattering noises, though bananas prove no temptation – allergic apparently. The biggest drawback to human contact with the mariners is that the ape has become somewhat addicted to alcohol in the form of rum. Taking surreptitious swigs from a hip flask the façade of gentility soon begins to crack and the ape’s nature is fully revealed; or is it the human, because by now they have become interchangeable?

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Kathryn Hunter fully inhabits the character, which is no surprise – she always does. Clearly the gait and posture of simians has been carefully studied by the actor and movement director Ilan Reichel and has resulted in one of the most physically astounding performances ever seen on stage. The bowed legs, the reversed hands and the tilt of the head are constant reminders that this figure before us isn’t human and I can only imagine what the osteopath’s bill must have been after the run of performances. Richard Hudson has overdressed the character as a sort of parody of Fred Astaire – indeed Red Peter does treat us to a vaudeville routine, presumably the day job. The suit is deliberately formal and too big, as though this unhappy figure has been togged up as a curiosity; it is indeed a costume rather than clothing. The staging (Steffi Wurster) is very simple and totally dominated by a gigantic photo of an actual ape which looks out at us slightly wistfully, even reprovingly. Lighting by Mike Gunning adds effectively to the mood and the sound of Nikola Kodjabashia is restrained but evocative. Walter Meierjohann’s direction has Chaplinesqe echoes and I couldn’t help being reminded of the scene in King Kong where another ape is paraded in front of an audience for their approval. It all becomes slightly uncomfortable, as indeed it should.

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In the end though it is Hunter’s tour de force which stays in the memory and as a feat of physical communication it would be hard to find its equal. It’s one of those occasions where the decision to commit the performance to video is definitely a blessing in that the world of drama would be the poorer if this didn’t exist. Bravo!

Production photos by Simon Annand

Kafka’s Monkey can be accessed via the Digital Theatre streaming service – click here

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