Theater archives

Kafka’s Monkey: Great Ape


For us—the esteemed members of the Academy seated in the auditorium—the evening’s guest lecturer is a small hunched man (Kathryn Hunter) who will recount his former life as an ape. Five years ago, he swung from trees and chomped on bananas. Today, via a series of circumstantial accidents and a lot of teaching and training, he stands at the lectern in bowler, bowtie, and long-tailed tux (a/k/a “monkey suit”) to recount his journey into humanity and his subsequent doubts about its merits.

Kafka’s Monkey, adapted by Colin Teevan from Franz Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy,” is performed by Kathryn Hunter, a virtuosic actor who so thoroughly embodies the role of monkey (and later monkey-man) that the show becomes her physical tour de force. With breathtaking specificity, Hunter walks, talks, climbs, and bends backward to animate the animal’s journey from beast to man.

But for all her efforts, this 2009 production from London’s Young Vic—presented this month by Theatre for a New Audience—stays in dramatic monochrome, hovering somewhere between literary parlor game and British music hall. (The latter is a tradition that rarely plays well in the U.S.; in director Walter Meierjohann’s staging, its various showman’s devices underline civilization’s vulgarity.)

With Kafka’s themes—the illusions of freedom, the limitations of humanity—announced in the first few minutes, this enactment of a great ape’s transformation offers neither an intellectual puzzle nor much direct emotional engagement. From my perch at Kafka’s academic forum, I could only admire Hunter’s dexterity and concur when the simian speaker informs us politely, “I have simply made a report.”