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Kathryn Hunter On ... Monkey Business

English actress and theatre director Kathryn Hunter won an Olivier award in 1990 for playing the millionairess in Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Visit. She's most well known for her physical theatre work and was the first British actress to play King Lear in a professional production - she also appeared as Richard III in an all female production at the Globe Theatre in 2003. Her recent directing credits include Othello for the RSC (of which she has recently been made an artistic associate), which is currently on tour. Hunter is currently preparing for the unusual role of an ape-man in Kafka’s Monkey, Colin Teevan’s new one woman adaptation of Kafka’s masterfully ironic short story.

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Rehearsing for a one woman show is demanding, but there’s a lot to engage with in this piece so I’m enjoying it. Ilan Reichel is working on the movement. He has a lot of experience working with animal characters so I asked him to help me with how to do the ape, especially as we’re looking at a creature who, in the story, has left his ape-hood behind and become a human being. What kind of a creature is that? Kafka is always a little bit surreal but it also has to be tangible, so in the theatre version we get a sense that he’s not quite a man, not quite a monkey. The tricky thing with the rehearsal process at the moment is finding the monkey. It’s all about those little transformations and adaptations, from the walk to the speech.

The ape is invited by an academy of people (we don’t know exactly who they are) to give an account of his life as an ape. He ends up saying “I’m sorry but I can’t tell you because I’ve been human for five years and I don’t remember what it was like before. In order to become a human being, I had to force myself to forget”. He then proceeds to tell them what he can about his journey towards becoming a human being. Essentially it’s an insult to him because he’s become a human being now and they still want to know about his life as an ape, so he proceeds to tell the story of his life, and how he became a human being by learning to speak, smoke and drink, which are all things that are supposedly civilised.

In all, it’s a story which asks us what is it to be a human being. Are we as civilised as we think? In the end, the so-called ape, the primitive creature, appears to have more sophistication and civilisation than the human beings.

I hope it’s going to be quite funny, but there’s darkness in it as well. It’s not dark as in heavy, but it asks probing questions, like how far have we really progressed? It touches on the questions we ask ourselves, like when we’re ruining our own planet, can we really call that progress? Is it such a very good thing that we went through this evolution after all?

Everything has been so hectic recently because I came to this straight from directing Othello. I just made myself learn the script really quickly. It's a one woman show so you can’t rely on anyone else to prompt you. It’s a very good script, sticking very closely to the Kafka original, but adapted by Colin Teevan. The language is very strong but accessible, and as vivid and bold as Kafka is. I think Kafka’s language and his imagination go very closely together, and I think an audience will find the play both surprising and delightful.

I suppose I’ve always been attracted to strong stories. I was obsessed with Lear since I was in school so getting to play him was amazing, and then Mark Rylance proposed Richard III for me and I thought it was a crazy idea but I may as well go for it. I don’t end up playing male characters out of some kind of a feminist plan; it’s more of a gravitation to the parts that I find more interesting. The first time I played a man was in a modern Comedia piece. I remember they wanted me to play the sexy, cocky, maid servant, who’s quite coquettish and I just thought that was much less interesting than the older male figure who’s kind of a dirty old man type. It’s a little bit more fun.

I think everybody is fed by variety. I love comedy as well as drama, although often in tragedy you can find the inferred comedy. In this Kafka work there is a dark theme, but there’s also a human playfulness and I think one needs that. It's curious that people think that Kafka can be quite heavy. His spirit is actually quite light and surreal and wonderful, with the kind of imagination that you’d find in a dream. You get a sense of the extraordinary rather than feeling depressed.

Othello is currently touring around Britain. It was in Newcastle recently, and then Oxford and Liverpool, so it’s very strange because usually I like to follow a production as it moves around. They are a very strong, wonderful company of talented, gifted actors. It is very much a company piece and it’s very special to me in that regard, I mean obviously also because of the extraordinary performances of Patrice Naiambana as Othello and Michael Gould as Iago as well as Alex Hassell as Casio and all the rest of the cast. Now they’re on the road and I think they wobbled a little bit, but they’re very strong overall and they can manage without me.

It is so hard to pick a career highlight. I mean, it kind of has to be the thing that you’re working on at the time I think. Of course I loved doing King Lear and that was a huge challenge, as was Richard III, and Spoonface Steinberg. But your favourite always ends up being whatever you’re struggling with at the moment, and right now I am struggling to find this monkey.

After the run at the Young Vic we're going to Australia. I think it is about two months in Melbourne and then on to Sydney and maybe Perth. I have worked in Australia a couple of times before, once with the Royal Court. We took a Shakespeare production there and it was interesting in that particular case because there was a degree of openness whereas here it is more common that people already have their own vision of what they want to see when they go to see Shakespeare.

I recently became an associate artist at the RSC so I’ll be joining them after this production. Michael Boyd has offered me Cleopatra, which is a big challenge that's sitting on the horizon at the moment. Of course that will be incredibly difficult for me because it’s a woman!

- Kathryn Hunter was speaking to Kate Jackson

Kafka's Monkey is at the Young Vic from 14 March to 9 April 2009.


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