Based on Kafka’s short story, A Report To An Academy, and adapted for the Young Vic by Colin Teevan, (though it follows the original text pretty much word-for-word) Kafka’s Monkey is a fascinating monologue by Kathryn Hunter. It tells the story of Red Peter, an ape, captured in Africa and taught by his human masters to walk, talk and behave as a ‘human,’ mostly by aping the very worst aspects of humanity. Over a taut 50 minutes, we follow Peter’s progress from helpless captive to celebrated music hall performer and are left to speculate about the question of identity. Peter ultimately emerges as a misfit, a creature neither ape nor human but somewhere in between, and consequently a tragic figure. The play is completely dominated by Hunter’s extraordinary performance. Make no mistake, this is a tour de force of the actor’s art. She shuffles onstage, her body stooped and twisted and brilliantly embodies her simian character, eerily conveying Peter’s eccentric moves and his stylised way of speaking.
Sadly, the production’s other aspects aren’t quite in the same league. Teevan’s script attempts a form of iambic pentameter for Peter’s ‘human’ utterings and free verse form for his ‘monkey’ self – but the story is short on anecdotal material. The presentation is after all supposed to be taking place in a scientific establishment, which may go some way to explain its curious sense of detachment, but a more intimate approach would surely have elicited more empathy with Peter’s plight. A central screen seems somewhat underused, displaying as it does just one image, that of a chimpanzee. It’s left blank for most of the running time and might perhaps have been used to indicate different scenes – the hold of a ship, perhaps or a music hall. There’s a sparse electronic score, which again seems perfunctory, particularly when set against Hunter’s bravura performance.
There are a couple of welcome touches of humour scattered throughout the proceedings as ‘Peter’ interacts with people in the front row, hugging them, offering them bananas, coaxing them to join him onstage. Hunter also performs some contortions that elicit gasps of amazement from the audience. She’s worth the price of admission on her own, but I can’t help feeling that more supportive staging would have lifted this production to another level entirely.