The stars of the Planet of the Apes franchise have spoken about having to attend ‘ape school’ to acquire the physicality of primates for the films, which are hardly known for their accurate depiction of monkeys. One cannot imagine, then, the process that led Kathryn Hunter, the sole actor in Kafka’s Monkey, to her total immersion in the role of Red Peter, a chimpanzee pretending to be a human. To say that she accurately apes (sorry) a monkey is an understatement; when she removes her glove to shake the hand of an audience member, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for prosthesis – the knuckles are pushed back, fingers curled perfectly. This is just one subtlety that she masters in her bodily transformation – her elbows are crooked, her hands slap the floor and she bounds lightly sideways on her feet. Throughout the show, Hunter exploits her astonishing physical and vocal dexterity to give one of the most studied, energetic and simply enthralling performances I have ever seen.
In an insightful post-show discussion, Hunter recalled seeing Planet of the Apes by chance and being struck by how enraged the apes were. Red Peter, on the other hand, has suffered much at the hands of men but comes onstage simply to deliver a report. In top hat and tails, Red Peter does his best to appeal to the humanity of the audience and supress the beast within. His story, an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s A Report to an Academy by Colin Teevan, is of a journey from West Africa to Europe, where he chooses to become a vaudeville act rather than a zoo inmate and eventually succumbs to that most human vice, alcohol. It’s a thought-provoking and funny tale of painful assimilation into a foreign culture that comments on the savagery of humans and the humanity of animals, asking of both, “which is the more civilised?”
With its implied audience, the “esteemed members of the academy”, Kafka’s Report is ripe for stage adaptation, and Teevan’s script takes full advantage of this. The narrative is interspersed with variety show chatter and interaction that always brings big laughs, with knowing comments that occasionally refer to the actual venue. Even when her audience are stumped at how to respond, Hunter has a line up her sharply tailored sleeve that propels the show along. When asked about her influences in the post-show talk, Hunter said that she increasingly sees her audience as the greatest inspiration. This may sound cheesy, but it is easy to believe once you have seen her charming and sympathetic Kafka’s Monkey.
The technical aspects of the show are spot-on: unobtrusive, almost filmic music accompanies Red Peter’s report, an atmospheric soundtrack of effects scattered with light vaudeville piano. The minimalist set features only a stool, podium and large projection of a monkey – an understated compliment to a multidimensional performance. Teevan and Hunter have crafted a stimulating and entertaining adaptation of Kafka’s short story that shows a clear reverence and fascination with the text. In short, a production of high quality that’s a real privilege to see.
Kafka’s Monkey played at Warwick Arts Centre. For more information on shows at Warwick Arts Centre see its website.