Review: Kafka's Monkey ~ theatre notes

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Review: Kafka's Monkey

Kafka's Monkey is based on Kafka's darkly comic story, A Report to An Academy, in which an ape, Red Peter, lectures the "honoured members of the Academy" on his transformation into a cultured European man. Shot and captured on the Gold Coast of Africa, Red Peter is then confined in a cage in the bowels of a ship, where he learns the niceties of human behaviour - spitting, drinking rum and finally speech - as a means of survival, a "way out" that, he is at pains to point out, has nothing to do with freedom.

It's often said that this story, first published in a Zionist magazine, is a satire on the assimilation of Jews into European society, but it's impossible to read it and not to think also of the "primitive savages" - Indigenous people from Africa, the Americas, the Pacific and Australia - who were exhibited in sideshows even as recently as the early 20th century. Red Peter remarks that when he arrived in Europe, he had a choice between "the Zoological Gardens and the variety stage", which is not so far from the historical truth; Carl Hagenbeck, often considered the father of the modern zoo, was also a famed exhibitor of "primitive" people, whom he displayed in simulacra of their natural habitats, frolicking near the exotic animals.

Part science exhibit, part freak show, Red Peter embodies those who are "other" in colonialist western culture, burying their former identities beneath the conventional apparel and habits of so-called civilised man, or even, as Red Peter says, forgetting them. "Without the most profound inward calm," says Red Peter, "I could never have found my way out"; but the calmness he describes - attained as he is crushed into a tiny barred cage - is the calmness of trauma, the stillness that emerges from the clarity of knowing that the only choice he has is between acceptance of his situation, or death. And Red Peter - unlike the "bewildered, half-broken" chimpanzee from whom he "takes comfort" at night - is a survivor.

It's unsurprising that this fascinating fable should be a popular target for theatrical adaptation: according to the program, it's often performed unadapted in Germany. I saw a performance of it at Anthill many years ago featuring Bob Burton, and of which regrettably I remember little, aside from the fact that I thought it very fine. This acclaimed production from the Young Vic features a remarkable physical performance from Kathryn Hunter, with an adaptation by Colin Teevan that imports some details from two extra fragments Kafka wrote about Red Peter that never made it into the final draft, but which otherwise doesn't mess much with the text.

The strange thing is that the production didn't seem to me at all like Kafka. Yes, it's his text, albeit translated and slightly adapted; yes, it's his concept. But the opaque darkness that moves under his sardonic humour, even the strange surreal precision of his unique vision, seem blurred, withheld; this monkey wants us to like him. The calm, even arrogant self-contempt that strikes me most forcibly in the story seems here transformed into a plea for understanding. It's a subtle transformation that changes the story into something less pitiless, and less cold. And, for my money, much less powerful.

There's no denying the quality of Kathryn Hunter's performance. She emerges on stage in a black hat and frock coat, her body subtly distorted by both her costume and her stance, her arm twisted up behind her in an ape-like gesture that thrusts her torso forward, even her hands twisted into longer, prehensile shapes, her eyes shifting from side to side in a kind of slow motion panic. You have absolutely no trouble believing in her half-human, half-ape condition; she apes humanity, just as she humanises the ape.

Within the performance are little eddies of comedy: she offers a banana to audience members ("I am banana intolerant"), and searches for lice in another's hair. Under Walter Meierjohann's direction, her performance is beautifully modulated, physically astounding and always riveting. Yet I walked out feeling that I had witnessed a virtuosic diversion, a highly skilled rendering down of a complex and disturbing text into something more easily digestible.

Aside from the little comic apologias, which distract from Kafka's sternly impersonal reportage, the production seemed uni-dimensional. Nikola Kodjabashia's soundscape - silence for most of the time, punctuated by abrupt snatches of music hall, or a dim chord - seldom went beyond the illustrative, and felt puzzlingly unintegrated; the lighting and set somehow fell between two stools, being neither rich nor detailed enough to become meaningful elements of the production, but not minimal enough either to be a stark framing of the performance (I found myself longing for no lighting or design at all). The production seems tacked together, a vaudeville that assumes a comfortable relationship between audience and performer, and which takes care never to disturb it. Which in itself feels rather un-Kafka.

Picture: Kathryn Hunter in Kafka's Monkey.

Kafka's Monkey, based on A Report to An Academy by Franz Kafka, adapted by Colin Teevan, directed by Walter Meierjohann, performed by Kathryn Hunter. Set by Steffi Wurster, costume by Richard Hudson, lighting design by Mike Gunning, sound and music by Nikola Kodjabashia. Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until May 9.


David Jays said...

As ever, a beautifully ruminative review, Alison. But I'm not sure I agree exactly that the performance (which I saw at the Young Vic) is a comfortable one. True, the voice in Kafka's story is (at least, in the translation I have by Michael Hoffmann) urbane to the point of arrogance. And part of the point, surely, is that on the page the ape can pass for human - how could we tell the difference? A live performer doesn't have that option, and I found the slide - and often dissonance - between the assured words and capering body continually provoking.

You're right, the 'comic eddies' (such a lovely phrase) were sometimes charming - but sometimes more than that. You don't mention if Hunter picked out an audience member and shook her hand, but in London this was a truly disarming moment. Extended beyond comfort, the woman whose hand was held and swayed appeared flustered, then moved - staring into Hunter's huge dark eyes, she flushed and mouthed 'hello' with a shy smile. Was this contact inter-species or an equally unstable one between actor and spectator? Who was this uncanny figure, and how should we assess it?

An audience which had arrived seemingly set to guffaw gradually fell quiet during the show. You'll know, perhaps, whether the monkey's apologetic avowal of revulsion at human stench is one of the 'importations', or Teevan's own invention. But it seemed to capture both the charm and detachment of Hunter's performance.

Kafka's story involves an ape addressing an audience, but on the page is necessarily a meeting between an urbane narrator and a solitary reader. In the theatre, that dynamic changes - the speaker has to find some accommodation with apehood, while we're addressed en masse, a community for the evening. We are teased or challenged to identify which behaviours are human, and which not. It can be poignant or amusing, sure, but not altogether comfortable.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks David - nice to be able to discuss something we've both seen, for once! The handshake, the moment where she asks us to smell her, and the line about the female chimp were all moments where the show began to move into another theatrical register for me - but that possible moment was so fleeting, it somehow didn't weave back into the rest of the performance, as if the production flinched back from it, and so left me with only the lightest residue... I don't mean that it shouldn't have been textured, or that it should bore mercilessly into the dark without relief, but I was puzzled by how little it moved me in the deeper places. Another blogger, Born Dancin', suggested that part of the problem is that Kafka's prose creates these complex interior states of being, and theatre by its nature is exterior, making him very difficult to adapt; I think that might have been part of the problem.

Alison Croggon said...

An afterthought which might be completely chance speculation - I am wondering if we have a very different production culture here, although I haven't seen enough English theatre to say that with huge confidence. For example, very often when I see English shows, I wonder about the sound design: it's rare here to see a main stage show that doesn't have a thought-through and completely integrated sound scape, with sound designers in from the first day of rehearsal, and the sound (or its absence) is considered part of the semiotics of the show. I hardly ever see work where sound just illustrates text, and I always notice it when I do. What's your view on that?

Born Dancin' said...

Great review; expresses what I was trying to say, really.

"her arm twisted up behind her in an ape-like gesture that thrusts her torso forward" - I could write an essay on this. It was the key to the piece, in my eyes, and its biggest problem. It's a very un-ape-like gesture to me and the only way I could reconcile it was to imagine it as the performing ape twisting itself into an unnatural and painful position to hide its ape-ness... a slightly grotesque visible reminder of how "passing" can twist and fray the subject.

Also the banana sequence and the nit-picking seemed completely at odds with the text. I'd almost prefer the show performed completely straight, with monkey-ness almost entirely absent from the physicality of the performer. It would make for a more unsettling, ironic and perhaps devastating exploration of the way the attainment of language can be an incredibly violent process.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,

I can't wait to read your thoughts on the Logies!

I have a thing (or two!) to add, but I'll wait for you to have your say first.

I was quite surprised you weren't nominated for your recent foray into television...! Nevermind.

Maybe next year!

p.s. I know this page is about the monkey show, pardon my gate-crashing!

p.p.s. For what it's worth, I thought the sound design of the Logies telecast was second to none.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention Gretel Killeen's comic eddies...

Alison Croggon said...

Bizarrely, I just did post on the Logies. (Like swine flu, I am insidious...) I'm sure my many TV Week fans will be mailing in their votes for me next year... meanwhile, the sound at the Logies was absolutely shocking. Poor Ms Lennox sounded as if she were singing in a toilet. Maybe it was better if you were there.

David Jays said...

As you say, Alison, it's exciting to have a chance to discuss the same show (though do two people ever see the same show, even if they're sitting side by side...?). Interesting point about the sound, and to be honest I've no idea whether Britain is ahead of the curve or lamentably behind the times. It's certainly true that sound design has crept up to become a major player in many productions. Though it's clearly a small (blokey) world, and the same names often crop up: especially Gareth Fry, Christopher Shutt. At its best it makes as vital, as poetic a component in a production as lighting - and like lighting, often creeps in under the radar, an almost subliminal aspect of a show that would feel untextured without it. So, sound's big on Australian stages, then?

Alison Croggon said...

It's an observation from random shows I've seen, both in London and touring - RSC, Royal Court... but maybe I saw ones with indifferent sound design (eg, the McKellen Lear, with dogs barking when the script called for it). Yes, that kind of dimension is more standard here than otherwise... but it's hard to generalise about cultures without an intimate knowledge of both of them.

David Jays said...

Oh the McKellen Lear... painfully literal and/or hammy on so many levels (apart, I thought, from McKellen himself) that I'd hate you to take it as representative of Brit theatre. Doggy sound effects were the least of the problem. Honestly, Alison, we can do better...

Alison Croggon said...

I'm sure you can...! And I admit, that was the pits. But not untypical (if worse than most) of some of the stuff I've seen, Kafka's Monkey included... Andrew Dickson wrote a Guardian piece a while back after seeing Barrie Kosky's Poppea about how unusual it was to hear music used in the theatre in that way that made me wonder a bit. Kosky is a particularly musical director, he's always directed opera side by side with theatre, but it's never his use of sound or music that's controversial here.

Which just goes to show the frustration of global theatre culture: you still have to see it for yourself!

Chris Kohn said...

On the topic of Australian sound design culture - congrats to Russell Goldsmith for the Tony nomination for Best Sound Design on Exit the King. Not a bad debut.

Alison Croggon said...

Indeed! But it's Dale Ferguson who's sweeping the pool in the nominations fields - I think his design has been nominated in practically every award, and he's up for two Tonys...

Aaron Paterson said...

Lovely review... though I agree with the comment that this show was unsettling. I am glad that you felt the light and sound were out of place. I felt they were grossly misplaced and took you out of the piece rather than hooking you. I did stay for a Q&A with Kathryn and the Director after the show and he hinted that these moments were 'memories' that that ape was reliving.
Also I think someone asked about the stench [?] of humanity and this comes from an additional piece of writing where Red Peter is being interviewed by a journalist.

My initial thoughts to the piece were posted in my blog here:

I am glad I caught this post.. you are so prolific a blogger I get left behind so easily.

Thanks for writing what we think so eloquently.