based on “A Report to an Academy” by Franz Kafka
at Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 30th May 2012
It’s no secret that the works of Franz Kafka are concerned with alienation and entrapment. His entire body of work is built around this central theme, and Kafka’s Monkey, based on “A Report to an Academy”, is no different. But styled as a lecture given by Red Peter, a man who used to be an ape (not a monkey, tut tut Kafka), there is also something liberating about Colin Teevan’s script, ending as it does with a creature’s discovery of humanity.
Before gushing about Kathryn Hunter’s captivating performance as Red Peter, something has to be said for Teevan’s carefully crafted text. Like the original, the story is presented to us as a lecture punctuated with flashbacks. The way in which this man turns into a monkey is irrelevant; what matters here is that the human we see before us was once an ape, trapped by other men and used for their entertainment. Once learning to act human, however, Peter is able to recount this story, freeing himself from the confines once imposed upon him but implicitly buying into the way of life which once imprisoned him.
This tension between freedom and entrapment is explored by Teevan’s use of a form which lies somewhere between prose and poetry. The structures and formalities required for giving an academic talk are shattered by a more liberal approach to storytelling, as the context and content play in direct opposition to one another. Though the transformation is in the opposite direction to Gregor’s in “The Metamorphoses”, the links are clear; like Kafka’s beetle, Kafka’s monkey is not wholly at home within human skin; perhaps we’d all be better off, is the suggestion, if we deconstructed social norms to discover a more autonomous lifestyle.
Embodying in her physicality all these textual contrasts is Kathryn Hunter. Astonishingly, she captures the gait of both an ageing man and an adolescent ape, entangling gestures of both and shifting from one to the other in a second. She darts around the stage, right hand aloft, climbing ladders and pounding the floor. Her skill is masterful.
Hunter’s movement alone would be startling enough, but coupled with her wit and verve as a speaker it becomes a performance of intellect too. Every word is somehow joined to a physical trait, and each feeds into the other. At times, the monkey-business is switched off so we engage with Peter the human, who impresses us with his humour, before he bounds up to the stage again and reverts to simian physicality. The most impressive moment occurs when Red Peter discusses his relationship with alcohol, as he sits in a spotlight and looks at the audience as an ape. For a minute, Hunter is not human.
This success is partly due to Walter Meierjohann’s no-frills direction, but I imagine most of the responsibility lies with the performer’s utter power over herself and her character. And though Kafka’s story relates heavily to confinement and the ways in which we entrap ourselves and others, the sheer passion Hunter lends to this role means that we leave the theatre feeling a little more free than when we went in.
My Pinterest board of the production: http://pinterest.com/danhutton/kafka-s-monkey-by-colin-teevan/