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Kafka’s Monkey

An adaptation of Kafka’s ‘A Report to an Academy’ by Colin Teevan

Young Vic

HOME, 17 June 2015

Kathryn Hunter in Kafka's Monkey. Photograph by Tristram Kenton

Kathryn Hunter in Kafka’s Monkey. Photograph by Tristram Kenton

If an ape could speak, would we be able to understand it?

Kathryn Hunter’s performance is extraordinary, an astounding work of physical theatre. On her first appearance, when she gives an ingratiating bow, an outsider hoping to fit in but knowing she will never be fully accepted, we feel a twinge of empathy, perhaps even kinship. She is a variety artist, a freak, a hybrid: Charlie Chaplin with an ape’s gait, an infirmity (identity?) she cannot ever really escape, no matter what. It is complete, the physical transformation (one is reluctant to use the word metamorphosis), and at first quite unsettling. Even her arms and hands are not quite under her control: shaking hands is a Dr. Strangelove ordeal for her, for all concerned. You are looking at a being that’s lost, radically uncertain about its place in the world: Kafka’s monkey, indeed. And as the ape realises at the end, there’s no way out.

Colin Teevan’s adaptation of  Kafka’s dark parable about assimilation and acculturation is a powerfully resonant work. Kafka may have had in mind a Galician Jew in the Habsburg empire or possibly a Herero native crushed by German colonialists. A modern day equivalent for us, among many examples,  might be an Ethiopian Jew in present-day Israel. They might encounter the same level of suspicion and scrutiny. It’s been said before by Lukacs but is worth repeating: Kafka is a realist.

In his 2006 paper ‘Why don’t apes point?’  the great Michael Tomasello writes: ‘Asking why only humans use language is like asking why only humans build skyscrapers, when the fact is that only humans, among primates, build freestanding shelters at all.’ Which puts Kathryn Hunter’s achievement in true perspective. She has achieved what is well nigh scientifically impossible: she has given an ape a voice.

Kafka’s Monkey is showing at HOME until 27 June, further details can be found here.