Kafka’s Monkey @ Young Vic, London

performed by
Kathryn Hunter

directed by
Walter Meierjohann

Colin Teevan’s adaptation of Kafka’s A Report to an Academy concerns a monkey originally from the Gold Coast who, after being shot, is imprisoned in a cage and forced to travel below deck on a ship heading to Hamburg. This isn’t the only journey he’s making, and along the way – taking the example of the crew – he evolves in to a walking, talking, rum-drinking man.

Once arrived at his destination he takes one of the only two choices available to him and begins a life on the stage. The ever versatile Kathryn Hunter is simply exceptional as the ape. She throws herself fully and physically into the role, contorting her body and facial expressions, shifting her posture looks and looking evry inch like a person trapped between humanity and the first rung of the evolutionary ladder.

When she first appears her right arm looks as if it is twisted, paralysed, and she keeps it in this position for much of the performance, a small thing but one that displays her commitment as a performer.

She is captivating to watch, whether simply walking across the room, climbing a ladder or performing one of her many ape-like dance routines. At times she interacts with the audience, at one point brilliantly begging for a rum bottle, and this further highlights her skill as a performer.

Recognising that Hunter needs little help, director Walter Meierjohann has kept everything to a minimum. The set is spare and whitewashed and the props few. It is left to some ingenious lighting to signify the different locations and key plot points in the story. For example the scene where the ape drinks his first bottle of rum is marvellously illuminated allowing Hunter’s hunched-over shadow to be vividly magnified on the screen behind her.

But while Hunter’s performance is powerful, the play itself doesn’t always engage as much as it might. The main problem is the subject matter itself which lacks drama, is not inherently theatrical, and while Hunter’s transformation from ape-hood to manhood is meant as a metaphor for man’s own pressures to conform, there isn’t enough to hold the audience’s interests, despite the short running time.

Kafka’s Monkey is a production where performance is all and without someone like Hunter in the role I suspect it would have struggled to hold my attention.

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