1/4/09, Young Vic.
50 mins. Played in one of the Young Vic's numerous studios, on an almost bare stage with steeply raked seating. Based on Kafka's A Report to an Academy.
An extraordinary tour de force by Kathryn Hunter as an ape in white tie, tails, bowler hat and unruly hair, silver hip flask concealed about his/her person, addressing "the Academy" about life as a chimpanzee passing for a human, or at least a performing monkey in variety. By imitation alone our hero has acquired the rudiments of civilisation (or "reached the level of the average European"), many of them (spitting, drinking, smoking) from the sailors on board the ship that brought him, tightly caged, from Africa.
It's a bleak piece, which has very little positive to say about the human condition or human society. Humanity, indeed, still revolts our hero, who is perceptive enough to know that "freedom" is an illusion, and who only seeks "a way out" from the cage in which he finds himself.
Hunter's performance is little short of miraculous. You watch her becoming an ape. She twists her arm under and behind her, gesturing with the palm upwards. She hangs horizontally from a ladder attached to the wall. She squats, walks, fidgets for all the world just like a chimp. And her face, with eyes wide, brow furrowed, mouth in a chimpanzee's round moue, is uncannily like the real thing. The movement is credited to someone called Ilan Reichel, but with Hunter to work with Reichel must have thought he had all the peanuts he could eat.
There were few props: a suitcase and cane (which with the tails and the bowler hinted at Chaplin's tramp, an early 20th century Everyman), a lectern at the start, a big projection of a chimp, those bananas.
Even the artificial, declamatory nature of Kafka's text, as adapted by Colin Teevan, does not defeat her though you feel it's a little too formal sometimes for her purposes. In moments of interpolated business (offering bananas to a member of the audience before picking through the woman's hair for fleas, for instance) a more informal note creeps in and you feel suits her better.
In lesser hands the piece would be a rather heavy-handed and slight satirical squib. With this team (including director Walter Meierjohann) it becomes a searing and rather moving picture if the ghastly world in which we are all trapped and must all perform.
Some stood to applaud at the end.
It reminded me of Me Cheeta, which I read just after Christmas: the spoof autobiography of the chimp who co-starred with Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in the Tarzan films. The account of Cheeta's capture in Africa and transport to the New World owes a lot, I should say, to Kafka's version.