The intriguingly titled Kafka’s Monkey originates from the short story A Report to an Academy by Franz Kafka, in which an ape-man recounts the tale of his transition from chimpanzee to human. Colin Teevan adapted this work into a one-person play back in 2009, and HOME is its first stop in Manchester.
At this point I’m going to admit that one-person shows make me feel a little… apprehensive. I worry that there will be a lack of variety, that the pace will drop, that the whole piece will just feel like one endless monologue and that with no-one else to back them up, the actor in question will wither like a dying plant under the glare of the stage lights. Ok, maybe I’m getting carried away, but you get my drift. Add to all of these challenges a surreal central concept and the daunting task of portraying an animal, and you have a role that demands an extraordinary performer with a very specific skills set.
Luckily for everyone in the audience at HOME, Kathryn Hunter is just such a performer. She demonstrates remarkable physicality: crouching for long periods, climbing the lighting rig to dangle by her legs, tap dancing, bending over backwards to drain a bottle of rum and even doing the splits. Her face contorts into wide, monkey-like grins and grimaces, while her flawless vocal delivery is a cross between a squawking chimpanzee and a dry, upper-class male academic. (Incidentally, it’s easy to forget that Hunter is technically cross-cast as the male Ape, because gender isn’t prominent in the piece. The fact that she portrays a male member of a different species so effectively adds another layer to her performance and is an interesting addition to the cross-casting trend/debate.) When I say luckily, I really mean it – I’ve rarely felt so privileged to have witnessed a performance.
Hunter ably handles the piece’s regular shifts from comedy to tragedy. Her interactions with the front row are very funny and lend a feeling of spontaneity to proceedings, as she hands out bananas, picks fleas off someone’s head and asks people their names like a stand-up comic. Her rapport with the audience is not just restricted to these individuals however – we all fulfil a crucial function as the lecture attendees (‘esteemed members of the academy’). There’s a nice jibe at The Palace Theatre too, which goes down very well. But the Ape’s account is largely one of suffering, as he recounts his capture and imprisonment in a tiny cage on board a ship. In order to end his ordeal, the Ape decides to mimic his captors and ‘become’ human. There is real poignancy in the Ape’s repeated refrain ‘no way out’ and in his persistent, painful attempts to drink rum like the sailors.
The wider implications of the piece are worrying too, with the Ape straying from his true, biological nature and conforming to an ideal set by others – the tail suit, top hat and cane worn by Hunter reflect not just the Ape’s career in variety performance but also his social pretensions. Yet the Ape does not seem happy in his new life – he found a ‘way out’ in order to survive, but cannot be truly free because of how society functions. At the play’s conclusion, Hunter picks up the hat, cane and suitcase, repeating ‘no way out,’ then spies the stage exit door and exclaims ‘ah! Way out!’ This comic moment makes for a surprising ending, and gives the stark satire of Kafka’s Monkey a lift at the finale.