Aping the Ape – Franz Kafka’s Report to an Academy at London’s Old Red Lion Theatre

Title:
Report To An Academy

Dates:
5 Jul 2022 – 30 Jul 2022

Times:
Tue - Sat 19:30

Venue:
Old Red Lion Theatre
418 St John Street
London
Other
EC1V 4NJ

Red Peter is an extraordinary ape who has learned to behave like a human. Sharing his tale of transformation with a scientific conference, he states his motivations clearly: he has no desire to be human, but simply to ensure his freedom from them. We can imagine the academicians sitting enthralled and attentive. However, unfortunately, that would not prove be the case in this audience, which consisted of just my party. This is despite this one-man show having garnered full houses on previous outings in Europe, according to the introduction to Report to an Academy, SCENA Theatre’s one-man production of Franz Kafka’s commentary on ‘civilisation’ and its relationship with fauna.

Published in Germany in 1917, Kafka’s short story grapples with what it means to be civilised – a philosophical question lent additional weight by the context of colonialism and World War I. But the Report presented here, by Berlin-based director Gabriele Jakobi, and Washington DC actor Robert McNamara as Red Peter, I found to be oversimplified and over-performed, and absurd to the point of parody. 

In West Africa, Peter is shot and captured by a hunting expedition, which McNamara imitates with a crude red smear across his face. Imprisoned on a ship bound for Europe, he is for the first time without freedom of movement. To escape his cage and constant abuse, he studies and mimics the habits of the crew – he smokes, spits, and struggles only with drinking alcohol. 

In Europe, he chooses ‘the Music Hall’ over ‘the Zoological Garden’, and learns the art of performance. His final transformation is so complete that he can no longer describe his emotions and experiences as an ape, and is rather content with his new, liminal life.

McNamara’s exaggerated performance emphasises the proximity of human-animal behaviour, lolling his tongue and extending his vowels. But I found the monologue often hard to follow, and it is only when Peter more subtly remarks his emotional horror – and physical response – to spending time with a chimpanzee, that the production starts navigating more complex territory, like the conflict between one’s past and present self.

A story about constant reinvention, Kafka’s original A Report to an Academy may well be worth revisiting in the present day, but I couldn’t help feel that, if preservation of a piece sometimes calls for casting off memories, that might also be the case with this production.

With thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic (@jelsofron) for this review; their podcast Empire Lines is available on all streaming platforms.

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