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Alice Dickerson

Kafka’s Monkey at the Young Vic

It is tempting to emerge from a play which finishes within the hour and feel slightly cheated.

Kafka’s Monkey at the Young Vic
Photo by Keith Pattison

Yet the humour and energy with which Kathryn Hunter plays Red Peter, Kafka's monkey-turned-human, more than justifies the evening.

Based on one of Kafka's lesser known short stories, 'A Report to an Academy', 'Kafka's Monkey' recounts the story of a captured monkey who discovers that, by aping the mannerisms of his captors, he can escape the literal confines of a cage for the equally restrictive music hall stage.

Red Peter presents the story of his evolution to a gathering of scientists, but it is difficult to tell whether the language he uses ('esteemed members of the academy') indicates that he is in awe of their intellect or mocking them for being no better than himself. Unlike the pigs of 'Animal Farm', Red Peter's transformation did not occur out of a wish to imitate the behaviour of humans; yet his words and actions suggest instead he may be more civilised than most men.

Just as no primate will ever be truly free, Red Peter will never be able to fully disguise his past. Therefore, dressed as a turn-of-the-century music hall star, Kathryn Hunter convincingly and humorously displays the mannerisms of a monkey attempting to suppress its animal instincts. At times, Hunter's pliable body is contorted at such angles that a wince is audible from the audience. Her interaction with the audience, such as offering bananas and checking for fleas, may feel a little forced but reminds us that we are an integral part of the narrative.

Kafka's trademark surrealist humour never hides the fact that this is a woeful tale, emphasised by the dejected manner in which Red Peter exits the stage. Yet Hunter's performance is excellent and this adaptation well deserves its second London run.

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