|Kathryn Hunter; photographed by Tristram Kenton|
Mankind has always been fascinated with trying to find a way to "talk to the animals". We are a species of Dr Dolittles, forever trying to make ourselves understood by our pets, or on a more scientific level, trying to forge a bond between ourselves and our ape cousins. Because, rather arrogantly, we think it would be best if we could communicate with them, probably with a morally ambiguous means to an end.
Kafka's Monkey is an adaptation of Franz Kafka's 1917 short story A Report to an Academy, in which an ape, which has learnt to behave like a human, describes his transformation and tries to relate his feelings on the matter.
This is a one-woman (or should that be one-ape?) show in which the remarkable talent of Kathryn Hunter is slap-bang in the spotlight for almost an hour. She portrays Red Peter, an ape which has been injured and captured by hunters in the West African jungle and brought to Europe. It is Red Peter's imprisonment, inside a cage aboard the ship during the voyage to Europe, that forces him to try and copy his human captors, to try and become one of them.
Why? To escape, of course. Red Peter has never known entrapment, he has always been free to go where he likes and do what he pleases in his natural habitat, just as it should be. Suddenly he finds all that freedom taken away from him, and sees that the only way out is to become like Man and live among him, ultimately becoming a musical hall performer. It's a very twisted case of Stockholm Syndrome.
Hunter is astonishing as Red Peter; she basically is an ape. From the moment she comes on stage, dressed in top hat and tails and clutching a doctor's bag and cane, her gait, movement and delivery just screams chimp. She has obviously studied primates a great deal, copying their behaviour, their facial expressions and movement, until she becomes Red Peter herself (in beautiful parallel to Red Peter's own story). She contorts her arms, scuttles across the stage, climbs ladders and hangs precariously from the top by the hook of her elbow...
The physical transformation Hunter goes through before your eyes is both awesome and mildly disconcerting. You know it's a human woman you're watching on stage, but your brain is fighting hard to make you think it's an ape. There can be no better reward for a performer than for her audience to be completely taken in by the illusion she's trying to cast upon us.
And that's just Hunter's physical performance. The play is a monologue in which Red Peter attempts to remember what life was like for him before he lived among humans, and it is sad that these memories seem to be informed by humans, as Peter's transformation is so "successful" that his former self has all but ebbed away. He sees himself as a human being now. He views photographs of chimps with curiosity, as if the sight of his fellow ape sparks something deep inside him, but he knows not what.
It is heartbreaking to see the extent to which Red Peter has been changed by Mankind, or rather living among Mankind. Through Hunter's performance we see the agony buried within, the confusion and the regret, the turmoil of being neither one thing or another. It made me feel more strongly than ever that the humanisation of animals, particularly apes, is inherently wrong. Fighting against nature is a dangerous game, as was proven when similar experiments were attempted on dolphins in the 1960s.
One passage hit deep within me, when Red Peter says mournfully: "Since freedom was never a possibility, there was nothing else for me to do but row myself to the other shore. I have rowed myself to the other shore." Just heartbreaking.
Kafka's Monkey is a strange beast, but its uniqueness is its selling point. Kathryn Hunter is a revelation, the material is thought-provoking and timeless, and the content is both sad and uplifting, and along the way also laugh-out-loud funny. Everyone should see this, because if you're not sold on the remarkable performance at its heart, you'll be moved by the message you take from it.
Writer: Colin Teevan, adapted from A Report to an Academy by Franz Kafka
Director: Walter Meierjohann
Cast: Kathryn Hunter (Red Peter)
Performed at Home, Manchester, June 17th to 27th, 2015. Performance reviewed: June 18th 2015.
Kafka's Monkey on the Home website (retrieved Jun 19th 2015)
The text of A Report to an Academy on Kafka.org (retrieved Jun 19th 2015)
Kafka's Monkey trailer (retrieved June 19th 2015)