Together at last: Performance Monkey sees... a monkey
A filmed display in the new theatre galleries at the V&A shows snippets of rehearsals from the National Theatre's The Wind in the Willows in 1990. Adapted by Alan Bennett from the British riverbank classic, it was a successful family show, easily transmuting its crotchety bachelor beasts (mole, toad, rat and badger) into roles for seasoned character actors.
As the film indicates, their research involved trips to the zoo and extensive improvisatory exercises exploring the essence of their particular furred or webbed creature. Only Michael Bryant, the experienced actor cast as Badger, refused to join in. Eventually the director packed him off with some videos of badger behaviour, and the next day asked what he'd learned. 'I have made a discovery about the habits of badgers,' the actor replied. 'Their movement and their posture have an extraordinary resemblance to Michael Bryant.'
Bryant had a point. Actors pretending to be furred beasts aren't supposed to mimic a nature documentary. It's a imaginative leap that we relish, the inter-species make believe (I've seen productions of The Two Gentlemen of Verona dominated by an actor playing Crab the dog. Though, admittedly, not as many as have been stolen by a real mutt in the role).
But even more, an animal role reflects on our humanity. Estranged from playing a human, the actor makes our behaviour seem peculiar. Few take on the subject more explicitly than the extraordinary actor Kathryn Hunter in Kafka's Monkey at London's Young Vic. She's always a phenomenal performer. The first time I saw her, with Complicite, she played a husky Mafia boss, a tiny bearded ball of threat. Unconstrained by age or gender, her subsequent roles have included King Lear and Richard III, and next year she's Cleopatra with the RSC.
But we want the monkey! It's after the click:
It's no surprise that Hunter makes a great ape. She swivels and buckles her triple-jointed limbs, scuttles up a ladder, rests on her knuckles and turns eyes brimful of sadness onto her audience. The play is based on Kafka's story 'A report to an academy', in which an ape who has successfully adopted human behaviour reflects on his experiences.
On the page, the ape is merely a voice - an urbane, thoughtful speaker addressing his peers. On stage, that sharp mind inhabits a body caught between two species, and the effect is utterly uncanny. Which parts of Hunter's performance are apeish and which human? What's the difference? Is there one?
One of her triumphs was not just charming the audience, but disconcerting them. Last night, she scampered up the aisle and shook a spectator's hand. 'Hello,' the woman mouthed, unsure of how to behave before Hunter's steady, limpid gaze. Later, she got another spectator to carry a prop to her and, though he took a while to take the hint, to bugger off back to his seat. Who was training who here? If last night's crowd seemed too ready to laugh, to assume that woman-as-ape was some kind of comedy turn, then by the end we were hushed into reflection. We'd learned to behave - not with humanity, but with something better.
Playwright Colin Teevan makes just one significant addition to Kafka's text. His ape apologetically confesses an incurable aversion to humanity ('I can barely stop myself from retching'). Hunter looks sorry, but there it is. And she holds our embarrassed silence, and we realise that the freak show here is us. Actors playing animals may not tell us much about apes and badgers - but it can restore to us an uneasy sense of our own, conditional humanity.
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