Adapted by Colin Teevan from A Report To An Academy by Franz Kafka
Directed by Walter Meierjohann
Venue: Maria Theatre
Date: Wednesday 1st April 2009
This was our first time in the Maria theatre. It’s an interesting space; bit cramped for leg room but reasonably intimate. Apparently this performance was being recorded, but I don’t think it affected the standard either way; the audience were very appreciative, even of the nit-picking.
My rating for this production is based on my enjoyment of the piece as a whole. Kathryn Hunter’s performance was superb – both Steve and I rated it as 10/10, and hopefully she’ll receive the recognition she deserves come award time – but the play itself was rather dull and after the early stages I found my attention wandering a bit.
The set was very plain. A large white square screen stood several feet from the back wall, plumb centre, and for a large part of the performance a picture of an ape was projected onto it. A lectern stood to the right at the front and there was a stool on the left at the front with a tray carrying two bananas. Some climbing apparatus on the left wall was the only other thing I can remember.
Kathryn Hunter entered through the fire doors back right carrying a suitcase and cane. She, or rather her character Red Peter, was dressed formally, in tails with a white collar and tie, and with a top hat. She made it clear she was waiting for us to welcome her which we did, eventually, and then she set down her suitcase and cane, very carefully, and strolled over to the lectern to begin her address.
I realise as I write this that it feels more natural to say ‘she’ when talking about this ape-man, so perhaps there was a flaw in the performance after all, as I really can’t get past her gender. Anyway, she told us that she couldn’t do what she’d been asked here to do, to talk about her time as an ape, as her memory of those days had been superseded by her experiences as a man. But she did offer to tell us about her memories of the period following her capture and how she changed into a semi-human.
The story was quite difficult to listen to at first, despite many funny moments. Some sailors had shot at her pack of monkeys and she was the only one wounded. They took her on board and kept her in a small, cramped cage, where she couldn’t stand or lie down or sit. She spent the first days in captivity with her back pressed against the bars and her face to the wall. It was unpleasant to listen to and brought up echoes of the slave ships and humankind’s general bad treatment of animals.
She learned to copy the humans she saw, culminating in drinking off a bottle of rum which led to her first spoken words. She was sent to a variety of trainers and with hard work developed enough skills to become independent. She now performed in variety theatre and otherwise led a quiet life, with only a female chimpanzee for company at night. The story over, she left us the way she came.
Her movements were totally in keeping with her character. The way Kathryn Hunter managed to twist her arms round to point behind her looked impossible, but she did this regularly, usually to point at the screen. She picked up the tray of bananas and offered them to people in the front row, again using a very peculiar twisted arm movement. After the two women in the front took the bananas, there was an extra treat for one of the women as Peter checked out her hair for insects, eating what she found and commenting that there were lots in there. She also made use of a chap on the other side of the front row. She gave him the empty rum bottle that she was using to demonstrate that story and when she was caught in a cage of light she gestured to him to bring her the bottle, which he did. She also romped into the audience at least one other time, as well as using the climbing bars at the side, and given her small size this was probably as close as a human being can get to impersonating an ape.
I wasn’t sure what Kafka had meant by his original story, but I decided this was meant to be an allegory on the way society imposes its norms on the untrained human being, taking them from a place of ignorant freedom to a prison of education and knowledge. I was glad that the state of innocence wasn’t presented as some kind of ideal, a paradise to be yearned for and whose loss we should mourn. Mind you, there was still a strong sense of loss in the ape’s story, a sense that the suffering and hardships had left their mark and that there was no going back to the old ways. A creature caught between two worlds, neither of which was home anymore.
An interesting afternoon then, with some marvellous moments but ultimately less satisfying than I’d hoped for.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me