Olivier award-winning actor Kathryn Hunter delivers a remarkable performance of one of Kafka’s most Kafkasque musings about an ape who ‘becomes’ a human in this polished kernel of a play that is – mercifully – unlike many one-man/woman shows.
Hunter first performed Kafka’s Monkey in 2009 at the Young Vic in London. She has toured it around the world, and spent a good deal of time literally ‘aping’ real apes.
All that practice has paid off. She seems genuinely ape-like in the way she hangs her arms, puppet-like, as if they are too big for her body; in the way she curls one fist behind her, apparently involuntarily; and in her harsh, eerily realistic shrieks. And yet you never feel that this is someone ‘playing the monkey’. Her acrobatic skill comes so naturally that you have to catch yourself to realise, ‘Good God, she’s halfway up a ladder with her legs curled around her ears!’. There’s none of the sweat flying from brows or the shouting and bluster that can sometimes grate in a one-person performance. This is understatement to the max – and as such, it is infinitely more powerful.
The wide and empty stage is sparsely lit with a careful spotlight here and there, and props are pared down to the bare minimum: a lectern, a stool, a suitcase and one solitary banana. Above it all looms a huge picture of a stern chimp, positioned so that his mournful gaze seems to fix on Hunter at key moments when she is at her most tragic.
On occasion, it does feel like a slightly big, grand space for such a small and pared-back show. While you could argue that all adds to the theme of isolation, you can’t help feeling it might have been better suited to the smaller studio theatres in which the piece has in the past been performed.
Equally, it’s hard to decide whether the audience participation that props up the piece really works. Yes, it’s all part of the picture of the ape trying to reach out to human beings – sharing a piece of banana, picking fleas from someone’s hair, getting that bloke in the front row up on stage – and as we giggle at Hunter’s antics, we are forced to question how ‘highbrow’ we are, even in our role as the ‘esteemed ladies and gentlemen of the academy’ who make up the ape’s audience. Even so… there’s rather a lot of that banana-waving and flea-picking, and it does start to get a bit silly.
In any case, you feel little sympathy for Hunter’s character, other than a grim recognition of the bleaker sides of the human condition that gradually emerge in this poor ex-monkey. She masters the ‘power’ of speech only after forcing herself to drink a bottle of gin, and lines like ‘I only ever imitated men because I needed a way out’ bring you back to the darkest days of teenage angst when you penned those poems about how much you hated everyone (yes, you know you did). That is Kafka’s point – and Hunter and her director Walter Meierjohann clearly get that.
And as Meierjohann is also artistic director of Home itself, then this is an exciting sign of things to come. Based on this show, it seems safe to say that we can look forward to more challenging, thought provoking, and above all high-quality and entertaining productions at Manchester’s new flagship venue.