Saturday, August 26, 2017

Kafka’s Monkey: absurd and bewildering, though the acting and direction are very satisfying (Lyric Theatre until 26 August)

Franz Kafka wrote the story Ein Bericht für eine Akademie (A Report to an Academy) in 1917. It tells the story of an ape called Red Peter who learned to mimic humans and is lecturing about his journey.

Adam Turns performed Colin Teevan’s stage version in an ambitious one man show – Kafka’s Monkey – which ran this week in the Lyric Theatre. The role shows off his superb physicality, carrying himself like an ape throughout the sixty minute production with a slight slouch and a constantly swinging left arm.

The bowler-hatted actor dressed in a ventless double-breasted suit that is simultaneously the right size yet does not fit slowly limps into view through a little used side door into the Lyric’s Naughton Studio. The set consists of a chair, a blackboard in the back centre, and the Black Box lectern standing to one side.
“Esteemed members of the academy …”

So begins the ape’s lecture to the assembled audience academy.

Since it’s Kafka, the absurd is to be expected. A man plays an ape playing a man. The fourth wall is broken without any fuss and the monkey’s handskake turns out to be quite Trump-esque.

We learn about the ape’s capture and how he deals with his incarceration in a cage on a boat. As he learns to ‘ape’ the humans around him, he is rewarded with some freedom. This transformation is relayed in halting monologues, delivered with a slight German accent.

We can blame Kafka for the bizarre plot. At one level it makes for terrible theatre because at first it is so inaccessible and offers so few clues as to its purpose or meaning that the lack of an interval is a strategic blessing because there would surely be empty seats at the start of the second act.

Yet if you invest the full hour, you witness an ape that resists assimilation as much as he can. He learns that just because he can culturally appropriate human ways and is valued by men for doing so, he doesn’t mean he has to sacrifice his true self to fully become one, though it is necessary to escape and survive. Though wearing a suit and trousers over his fur – the actor has shaved his head and is hairless for the role despite the implied furriness of his character – does smack of the pigs wearing clothes and walking upright in Animal Farm!

Do we become like those by whom we are surrounded? Do we take on their mannerisms and behaviours and values? Or do we stand out as ourselves, collaborating with their schemes when it suits us, but not fully buying into all their ways?

If the role is a showcase for Adam Turns’ talents, then the structure of the play is a showcase for director Rhiann Jeffrey’s very measured sense of shape and form. Every 5-7 minutes we learn something new about the talents of the ape: performing magic, writing left-handed, new movements and ticks.

It’s a production full of contradictions. The lighting is soft yet very precise. Glowing areas of the stage are used to anticipate as well as accentuate movement of the ape. The barred cage is a simple yet well-planned effect. The final silhouette as Red Peter departs stage right is a beautiful construction.

The acting, direction, lighting and soundscape were significantly better than the script upon which it relies. The monologue is bound to have many layers of meaning … just very well trapped inside the bewildering plot. For me that makes it a strange choice of play to produce.

Kafka’s Monkey finishes in the Lyric Theatre on Saturday 26 August.

Production shots by Maryann Maguire.

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