Kafka’s Monkey – Young Vic

Kathryn Hunter is one of the most extraordinary performers currently working in this country. ‘Kafka’s Monkey’ is an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s short story ‘A Report to an Academy’. It’s a monologue for a chimpanzee that has learnt to speak and behave like a human being. Being Kafka, the conclusions it draws are about as bleak as you could wish for.

Essentially, this is a play about integration, albeit written from an outsider’s perspective. It makes a horrifying counter-argument to England People Very Nice up the road at the NT. Joining in is painted as a matter of becoming a cruel, alcoholic mess.

Hunter’s performance is nigh-on perfect. Wide-eyed and clownish, she precisely captures the broken-but-defiant, wounded dignity of an animal forced to perform as a person. Colin Teevan’s script feels utterly true to the spirit of the original text. The writing is unshowy and crackles with internal tension.

Ultimately, though, it is hard to pin down precisely what Kafka was really getting at with the story. Is he saying that ultimately none of us can escape our origins? Or that humanity is just such a wretched mess that not even animals should aspire to our condition? That the story was originally published in a Zionist magazine suggests an even more bleak reading concerning racial assimilation.

Irrespective of meaning, Kafka’s Monkey is a superb piece of writing and a peerless performance from Kathryn Hunter.

***** (five stars)

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