Watching a woman pretending to be an ape pretending to be a man does not initially sound like the ideal way to spend an evening, but in the hands of award-winning actress Kathryn Hunter, it is 50 minutes in the company of a charismatic, eloquent and troubled monkey of the most endearing nature.
A performer of lesser talents might struggle with the physicality of the performance, the nuance of hinting back to the inescapable history with a crook of the arm and a wobble in the walk, yet still delivering a tale which is distinctly human in its condemnation of humanity.
The tale addressed to the gathered members of an imaginary academy – or the press night audience in this case – is one of entrapment and a struggle to survive. Captured by a hunting party, the ape is locked in a cruelly inhibiting cage, its only hope of survival to imitate humans, to ingratiate itself with the species and seem one of them. Hence the mimicry of pipe smoking, the move into the entertainment industry – for he is now a variety artiste – and the deeply troubling tale of his attempts to take up drinking rum.
Within Kafka’s story of Darwinian fast-tracking, adapted for this production by Colin Teevan, lie hidden gems of truth, easy for an ape with an objective viewpoint to make clear. Its laugher at the idea of human freedom when viewed from an animal perspective and its assertion that in the face of adversity you learn when you have to are both moments of clarity in a bizarre and compelling tale.
With Hunter in the role, her eyes wide with wonder and then filled with a deep sadness, controlling the audience with the smallest movement of her eyebrows and playing with theatergoers throughout the performance, the chimp’s story of captivity – and it is still trapped in the bar-less no man’s land between ape-kind and humanity – is touching and moving yet rife with humour.