Review: Kafka’s Monkey

By John Nathan, March 26, 2009

Young Vic, London SE1

Kathryn Hunter is superb as Red Peter, the sophisticated, cappuccino-drinking monkey-turned-human

Kathryn Hunter is superb as Red Peter, the sophisticated, cappuccino-drinking monkey-turned-human

It is no surprise that Kafka’s short story A Report to an Academy, first published in 1917 in an intellectual German magazine called The Jew — Der Jude in the original German — has been interpreted as a commentary on the condition of the Jewish diaspora.

It is about an ape called Red Peter who has taught himself to be human. Peter — the “Red” is not political but refers to the red scar acquired when he was shot by his human captors — addresses an academy of scientists who have invited him to talk about his former, simian self. Except that in this staged version, adapted by Colin Teevan and directed by Walter Meierjohann, the lesson of the 50-minute one-ape-show is that Peter’s simian self, like our own, is never far away. Dressed like Fred Astaire in white-tie-and-tails and carrying a cane, Kathryn Hunter’s upper-class Peter sniffs the air as he cautiously enters the auditorium to address his human audience. What follows is the latest in a long line of remarkable performances by an actress who has previously jumped genders playing the title roles in King Lear and Richard III. This time she has jumped genders and species.

It is the over-dressing that is the first giveaway. Have you ever noticed how when the boxing fraternity dress up in dinner suits to watch two men bludgeon each other, the civilised dress code somehow only highlights the barbarity of it all?

So it is with Peter. Only it is not barbarity — leave that to the humans — that Peter’s best bib and tucker betrays but his uncivilised past; his otherness; the over-dressed sartorial gaff that could only be a result of his foreignness.

And if Kafka’s much more famous story Metamorphosis, in which a dutiful son is transformed into an insect, foresaw Germany’s rejection of Jews, then Kafka’s Monkey, which Teevan has needlessly renamed from the original title, reflects the demands placed on minorities by intolerant societies. Be like us, only more so. Or else. Which explains the flashes of fear and submission in Hunter’s big brown eyes as Peter scans the audience for signs that he has accidently caused offence.

Peter’s story — told on a stage bare but for a giant Victorian photograph of one his now-distant cousins — is excruciating. It takes in his transportation in a ship’s hold where he is cruelly imprisoned in a cage too low to stand and too narrow to sit. It was from this agony that he found the impulse to become human.

In retrospect he can say with all confidence that there was no thought-out plan. It was more a dawning realisation brought about by what he calls “the weight of experience”. A realisation that to be outside the cage he had to be more like the sailors who singed his fur with cigarettes and whose laughs sounded like barking dogs. It is from these sea dogs that Peter learned how to be human — to smoke a pipe, to drink rum and eventually say his first slurred but unmistakable “hello”.

All of this is recounted with the occasional twirl of his cane and the relaxed air of a practised raconteur. Occasionally apeness erupts — not as an example of the monkey essence that, according to newspaper hacks, Peter has failed fully to suppress, but merely as a way of illustrating the geographical and psychological distance he has travelled.

At one point he appears to regress, emitting a series of vowels and growls that coalesce into consonants until, strung together, they form the words “Can I have a cappuccino please?”

And as always with Hunter, there is a fascinating and disturbing physicality to her performance. Hanging loose limbed and swaying from a wall while observing the humans Peter will ape, there is not one inch of her that does not suggest monkey.

And when demonstrating the confined space of her cage, she contorts her limbs and body into impossible positions. It is a double-jointed skill that is at least partly the result of the suicide Hunter attempted while still at drama school. She jumped from a first-floor window and it was thought she might never walk again. Now, in her late-forties, she pursues possibly the most artistically risky acting career currently on the stage.

The physical legacy of her depression is a wonky arm and a limp. Neither did any harm to her Richard III, but I have never seen them more effectively used than here. She appears to be both gossamer fragile and indestructibly supple. It takes something extraordinary to embody the grotesque leaps of Kafka’s imagination.

The Jewish author’s lessons about assimilation and minorities are there for anyone to make the most of, but with rational thought under attack by today’s creationists there is an extra level of significance to this piece. The recently celebrated and increasingly challenged Darwin would love it.

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Last updated: 1:42pm, March 26 2009