Above all else the thing that you take away with you from Kafka’s Monkey is that Kathryn Hunter is a truly exceptional performer. As Red Peter, the sophisticated ape, her arms appear double-jointed and her gait is shuffling and simian, but what makes her performance so compelling is her eyes. Whether gambolling about the auditorium while engaging in some vaudevillian audience participation or huddling in the corner as she recalls her first swig of the rum bottle, Hunter’s eyes hold every single human in the audience to account: “Look what humanity has done to me.”
Based on Franz Kafka’s A Report to an Academy, Colin Teevan’s adaptation takes the form of a lecture in which Red Peter explains just how it is that he is able to speak, walk, and even drink like a man. He speaks fondly of his original captors and teachers; they may have beaten him but they only did so because they knew no other way to be, he tells us, rage melting into lip-curling contempt.
Steffi Wurster’s clinical set acts as a bar-less cage in which Hunter can perform before her audience – and perform she does. A consummate clown she plays the role of ring master effortlessly, beautifully combining both a need for our approval and disdain at our baseness. Hunter seems to draw energy from the audience, thriving on each specific reaction. But for all this interplay between spectator and performer, for all the hand-shaking and banter, she is resolutely alone on the stage and her loneliness at being the only one of her kind is palpable; it permeates everything she says and does.
Nikola Kodjabashia’s simple soundscape is suitably evocative but perhaps more powerfully it feels as if Kodjabashia is stalking Red Peter, puncturing key moments with an industrial noise that infuses the space with a sense of dread. For all its sophisticated touches, Walter Meierjohann’s production rests entirely on the shoulders of one woman – and in this respect Hunter is peerless. Here is a performer who has taken the material and made it her own; it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, anyone else throwing themselves so totally into the part of Red Peter. Hers is a hypnotic performance but at the end it is hard not to feel that this is just a showcase for a virtuoso performer.
Teevan’s adaptation is taut and potent, elegantly conveying Kafka’s original judgement-filled piece, but what is it really saying? Step by torturous step, Red Peter drags himself closer to human form, his distaste for man’s barbarism undisguised; human beings are the beasts that should be chained up. Both play and performance are making powerful statements, but the piece, taken as a whole, frustrates and dazzles in equal measure.