Warwick Arts Centre, Main Theatre
30th May 2012
Kathryn Hunter’s incomparable performance as Red Peter lifts Kafka’s already powerful story about captivity and civility to soaring heights of theatrical excellence.
Colin Teevan’s adaptation of Kafka’s short story “A Report to The Academy”, which follows the integration of an ape into human society, is wonderfully poignant and relevant and does well with Walter Meierjohann’s clear and symbolic direction.
It is Kathryn Hunter, however, who commands the success of the piece, bounding around the stage as the ape (who impersonates a man), and jumping between her report (storytelling), the events of the narrative (with stunning moments of physicality) and direct interaction with the audience. The audience are captivated. Whenever Hunter goes off script – “Are you glad you’re here, rather than seeing Kiss of the Spiderwoman next door”; “Banana shampoo? Well, yes, of course that was in the original” – she is careful and precise in her improvisation whilst never being afraid to intimidate, laugh at or embrace the audience. She can return to the stage afterwards, take a deep breath or climb a ladder and pause, and the audience will be silent again, anticipating her next move, sitting on the edge of their seats.
Hunter can generate pathos and disgust for this half-man, half-ape, focusing on the tolerance of alcohol as the line between the two stages of evolution and calling into question in her impersonation the differences between them. We ask whether the ape is more civil and more intelligent than man, and vice versa. Hunter skilfully propels herself around Steffi Wurster’s simple set, using honed gestures that never let you forget the origins of her character. There is no doubt that her performance deserved the thundering applause and the standing ovation that it received.
In the post-show discussion with several specialists from the field of animal studies from the universities of Warwick and Berkeley, Hunter outdid the eloquence and specialism of the academics with a profound insight into her portrayal of the Red Peter. Firstly, her inspiration to continue to portray and revive the character is ultimately the audience. And secondly, that interpretations of the piece – and of the short story – are multiple: issues of the integration of “foreigners” into cities and other landscapes; the disillusion of freedom – a topic hotly contested at performances of Kafka’s Monkey in the Far East; captivity and reassessment of how we view animal containment; the self-imposed limits of civilization – and the list goes on.
What we see, then, is a performing monkey, of supreme skill, with the power of political purpose. I urge you to go and see this piece – live, if possible – or to download it from Digital Theatre, here.