Kafka’s Monkey

Kafka’s short story A report for an academy barely runs to ten pages, and Colin Teevan’s adaptation (slightly too modernised) for Kathryn Hunter’s extraordinary performance in the Maria studio of the Young Vic is a clipped distillation playing for just about forty-five minutes.

It’s both too much and too little, a perfect gem of a parable of stunted human endeavour in which the former ape, Red Peter – so named because of a red scar caused by the gunshot when he was captured on the Gold Coast – addresses us, “esteemed members of the academy”, at our invitation.

What was it like being an ape? He can’t remember. For five years he’s been assimilated, gradually, into the ways of men as a vaudeville entertainer. He’s rowed himself to the other shore, his choice of captivity being that of the zoo or the theatre; he chose variety, or vaudeville.

It’s an odd story, not really a Darwinian tract, nor a psychological study. Instead, Hunter seizes on the outer lineaments of the role and produces a hobbling, simian neutral sort of homunculus, sidling into the Maria in evening dress and black homburg under the dominating gaze of the portrait of a half-trained female chimpanzee from whom he takes comfort “as apes do” but whom, by day, he cannot bear to see.

The actor has ordered her voice into a basso chipmunk drawl, scurrying round the stage and even darting into the audience to proffer a peeled banana, or shake a hand, small gestures of friendliness subsumed in the overall campaign to find “a way out”. The monkey’s escape is an illusion, as one sort of cage in replaced by another, comparable dependency.

So there’s a sulphurous quietude in Hunter’s submission, a celebration of how far Red Peter’s come but a realisation of how little has changed for the better. The observation of human creatures, the smell of the rum bottle, the acquisition of knowledge, all is accepted with a patient shrug and a feeling of not quite getting anywhere with it all.

Hunter’s exact, tremulous performance is directed by Walter Meierjohann on a plain grey set by Steffi Wurster, with lighting by Mike Gunning. But, for the ticket price, why not reprise one of the Beckett fragments, or even add a new monologue for the lady chimp as a second half?

– Michael Coveney