26 June 2023

This play caught my eye last year in London when the Old Red Lion theatre staged it under the same name as a one-person show directed by Gabriele Jakobi, with Robert McNamara as “Red Peter” (the monkey).  I was interested in seeing it (and reviews were reasonably good on balance), but the timing just didn’t work out, so I missed out.  Reading up about the play at the time, I was absolutely gutted to find out that The Young Vic did a production of it as “Kafka’s Monkey” in 2011 as a one-person staging with Kathryn Hunter.  Now there’s someone who was not to be missed, and yet I missed her.  Looked up old reviews, and they raved about Hunter’s monkey transformation.

It would’ve been helpful to have seen either of these in London to have something to compare the Berlin production to, but the latter offered surtitles, so it seemed like a good show to sample, especially at the theatre that, as my companion told me, is notorious for its weird and wonderful productions.

The play is about an ape named “Red Peter”, who turns himself into a human by learning to dress, speak, and mimic accordingly.  Both London stagings stuck to Kafka’s monologue style, so there’s just Peter telling the audience what’s what.  This production, directed by Oliver Frljić, has a cast of many characters played by 7 actors.  Of all the things that it is, a monologue it is not.

Painting with a broad brush, the production can be divided into 4 parts, the first one being the introduction.

The short story itself has been made a part of the 2003 J.M. Coetzee’s fictional novel “Elizabeth Costello“.  The title character is a writer who travels the world giving lectures on assorted topics ranging from animal rights to literary censorship.  One of her speeches about vegetarianism digs deep into “A Report to an Academy”, and this is where the play starts:  we have Elizabeth Costello on stage talking about vegetarians, Jews, and the Holocaust.  Although plenty of scholars expressed opinions that this novel represents Kafka’s satyrical take on assimilation of Jews into Western culture, I thought the Holocaust angle was a bit much (and in Germany to boot!).  My companion disagreed and thought that the speech had clever notions that intended to provoke.  That may well be the case, but I was decidedly unimpressed.

The next part is more or less all Kafka.  There may have been some creative edits (as I hadn’t read the play), but the text seems to aligned to what I’d read about the London shows.  Unlike the London shows, however, the plot is acted out, mimed, screamed, and spilled into the audience by the cast.  This was probably my favourite part, as it was full of humour and simply delightful interactions.  Although I’m never one for gross-out comedy, the banana scene genuinely had me laughing out loud, so that’s saying something.  There was also a lot of nudity, and I do mean a lot, some of which involved a starkers cast member squeezing his way through a row of patrons in mid-stalls.  There was a bit of a logical detour here, which we didn’t think was Kafka, but it fitted nicely with the overall story.  There was a scene here where either Jonas Dassler (pretty sure it was him) or Aram Tafreshian (had I written this review sooner, I would’ve remember which character it was, for which I must apologise, but both men were decidedly excellent) climbed up a tall staircase backwards.  It was gravity-defying and looked really dangerous.  Several people gasped, myself included.  This whole part of the show was a feast for the eyes (because it was colourful, not because of the nudity!) and the brain.  My only criticism is that some interactions with the audience were too far back in the stalls for those in the balcony to see them.  Lots of people in the balcony got up and rushed to the front via the two aisles.  Thankfully the ushers weren’t too bothered by it, so we all just stood there looking down until the action moved toward the stage again.

The only word I can think of to describe the third part is “weird”.  It is essentially a continuation of the story where Kafka left off.  Presumably this is from the mind of Johanna Höhmann, as she is listed as the dramaturge for this production.  I will give away a tiny bit, but not a ton:  Red Peter gets married to a human girl and tries to raise a family (with mixed results, obviously).  Some of the scenes (e.g., the birth; kudos to Lea Draeger) are hysterically funny.  Others (e.g., parents’ interview) are very confusing:  it’s as if the director is going for something, but we just can’t tell for what.  Neither my companion nor I were able to work it out to our satisfaction.

The last part is essentially Frljić’s and/or Höhmann’s opinion of modern day politics, where the world is headed, and how we’re all just a bunch of caged animals headed to hell in a handbasket.  The visuals and the set transformation that Igor Pauška set up for this part are nothing short of magical:  Harry Potter can chill out quietly in the corner.  Although not everything went smoothly on the night we saw the play, the overall effect is brilliantly chilling.  Too bad the text was preachy and in your face, ramming the point down your throat and, just when you thought that hearing the same opinion in three different way was enough, it was rammed down your throat some more.

Minor criticisms aside, the evening was an absolute delight.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £10.

Gorki Theatre

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