Kafka's Monkey

Adapted by Colin Teevan from Franz Kafka's A Report to An Academy
Young Vic and Home Manchester
Home Manchester

Kathryn Hunter in Kafka's Monkey at the Young Vic Credit: Tristram Kenton

The Kafka of the title is the writer of the original short story from 1917, A Report to An Academy, on which the play is based; the Monkey is the storyteller and the only character.

Presented as a lecture to an esteemed academic audience, Red Peter tells the story of how he was shot and captured as an ape on the Gold Coast before being shipped across to Europe. That's right, he's an ape, but he can talk and move almost like a human being, and is dressed as smartly as any human lecturer would have been a century or so ago.

The reason for this is that he learned to ape the humans on the ship that brought him from Africa in order to become more like them. He battled his aversion to rum to win over the sailors, then learned how to talk to them. This was not from a desire to be at all like them, but purely to find a "way out"—in other words, to survive.

There are plenty of metaphors you could find in this story from the father of modernist literature, born into a German-speaking Jewish family in the late nineteenth century in a Prague that was predominantly Czech-speaking. It's about emulating your captor—or perhaps just the dominant majority—in order to survive, without necessarily liking or wanting to be like them.

The play isn't strong on narrative, but it is held together by a remarkable performance from a really great actor. Kathryn Hunter brings her incredible physical and vocal approach to performance to create the movements of someone who could feasibly have been an ape but is now walking more like a human being—with a lot of obvious ape mannerisms.

Hunter brings plenty of humour to the role, and even some audience participation—so watch out if you are in the middle of the front row. I'm sure I detected a bit of Norman Wisdom in some of the physical comedy. And a 55-minute production that employs a "hat manipulation instructor" (Stewart Pemberton) is obviously looking after the finer details of its comedy.

Even just two productions in, there is a pattern starting to emerge at Walter Meierjohann's Home of productions that are impressive visually but many may feel a little lacking narratively.

It's a faithful if slightly bland adaptation of Kafka, but what makes it worth seeing is a fascinating performance from one of the greatest ever physical theatre performers. It's always worth spending 55 minutes of your time in the company of Kathryn Hunter.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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