Monkeying around on the stage

Actress Kathryn Hunter gets in touch with her primal self in 'Kafka's Monkey'


Special To The Japan Times

Britain’s longest-serving theater critic, Michael Billington of The Guardian newspaper, is famous for not lavishing praise on his subjects easily or often.

So when Billington tipped his hat to “Kafka’s Monkey” in a 2009 review — rhetorically asking, “Is there anything Kathryn Hunter can’t play?” — it was a sure sign that one of England’s leading actresses had done something special with her role as ape-man Red Peter in the production by Irish dramatist Colin Teevan.

Following that world premiere, which was directed by Walter Meierjohann at the Young Vic theater in London, critics — and audiences — echoed Billington’s praise for both the play and Hunter’s disturbing, sympathetic and strangely realistic creation of a chimpanzee who comes to see better than humans how their greed for “progress” and new things would be their undoing.

In this adaptation from Czech writer Franz Kafka’s short 1917 novel “A Report to an Academy,” a smartly dressed “former ape” named Red Peter (Kathryn Hunter) is invited as a guest speaker to address a scientific academy and report on the process of his transformation from ape to human since being captured in West Africa and transported to Hamburg, Germany, by ship.

On the way, he explains, he had a brilliant idea to dodge the life he was heading for in a zoo cage. That was, simply, to start mimicking the behavior of people around him. This so impressed the ship’s crew that, when they reached Germany, they got him a job as an ape-man performer at a music hall. However, he told his audience, he couldn’t talk about his time as an ape because he had to forget all his former habits and emotions to become a “complete” human.

At a press conference in Tokyo in March, Hunter, 55, explained: “The play is about the cost of adaptation, and it’s often taken as a fable about the experience of immigrants in London, where there are lots of immigrants, and how they learn new languages and customs and how to fit in.”

The newly married actress drew on her many visits to this country — including touring here with the Young Vic, playing the memorable title role in “King Lear,” and acting in plays by Hideki Noda — to relate Red Peter to Japan.

“This play may be taken as a parable of progress and the issues it raises,” she says. “Ironically, though it is about what it takes to become a human being, it shows that in their nature, humans are still very violent and obsessed with power. So there are many people in Japan today who are feeling lonely because, though they have computers and mobile phones, they are apart from their animal nature.”

“Kafka’s Monkey” has a brief stopover in Tokyo this week ahead of stagings in Taipei and Istanbul.

Hunter was in Tokyo in March to play the lead in a rerun of the British-Japanese collaboration work “The Bee,” a hilarious physical psycho-drama by Hideki Noda. That gave this writer a chance to meet up with the actress for a chat in a Shibuya cafe. There, she talked enthusiastically about her vocation as an actress and the pleasure of theater creation.

Born Aikaterini Hadjipateras into a Greek family in New York, the infant Hunter moved with her parents and twin sister to Lodon, where in her teens she won a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). Looking back on her upbringing, she says, “My Greek heritage informed who I am because, for example, in the family in London we spoke in both Greek and English, and there was lots of Greek tradition and culture around me. So, I’ve grown up with a double culture.

“But then one day the principal of RADA, Hugh Cruttwell, said to me that if an actor looked like a foreigner and their name sounded foreign, like mine, then people would assume they couldn’t speak English and would only give them roles as Gypsies, for example. So he advised me to change my name to an English one. I think he was definitely right.”

Hunter says that when she first experienced theater in her early teens, she instantly fell in love with it. “When I played in ‘Ring Round the Moon’ by Jean Anouilh,” she recalls, “people laughed a lot. It was a breathtaking experience. I love comedy — and I also love to see a funny side of tragedy, because I think life is full of such tragicomedy and absurdity.”

Explaining this seemingly odd sentiment, Hunter smilingly tells how, when she was at school in England, older pupils would work in the community as volunteers. “I used to visit old people’s houses and help them to clean and do shopping and be company for them,” she says. “When one lady died in a hospital, I was there and I realized then how comic-tragic scenes were everywhere.

“That was because, while the lady was taking her last breath, in the next cubicle a nurse was asking another old lady in a loud voice: ‘Do you want beans or soup?’ Then the old lady said: ‘What?’ So the nurse repeated her question in a louder voice: ‘Beans or soup?’ I realized then that life was exactly like that. It’s full of contradictions. So when I direct a play or act, I like to try and draw on those contradictions.”

As an example, Hunter says she’d been able to draw on that “double face” when she directed “The Glory of Living,” by U.S. playwright Rebecca Gilman at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1999. In the play, a crazy lower-class young couple was obsessed about killing young girls in grotesque ways. However, Hunter says she decided to make the play very beautiful in a way, with the couple a kind of strangely innocent Adam and Eve who got carried away by their egos without realizing. She said that way, rather than just describing them as cruel killers, it made for a much stronger, sadder play.

But Hunter isn’t only unconventional in her thinking, she is often described as a “physical actress.”

“At RADA we had great physical training classes in jazz dance, ballet, acrobatics and such — but they never brought them together. They just did them for actors’ physical training,” she recalls, addressing the “physical” label.

“Later, I realized my body didn’t feel completely right on stage. But then I encountered Complicite (a leading British contemporary theater company led by Simon McBurney), and what they were doing was like a revolution in British theater, which then stressed deep text readings for actors to get in touch with a work and their role. However, Complicite’s approach was a language of space and physical story-telling — they said if your body was right, then your emotion was right, so if you concentrated on the physical role first, then the emotion would come.

“Actually, I had an argument with Simon about that point, and finally we agreed on the need for both — body and psychology — at the same time, because words are physical, too; how to breathe and how to use your body.”

In Tokyo in March, Hunter clearly put that theory into practice when she acted the part of a lunatic Japanese businessman named Ido in “The Bee.”

“I tried to understand the psychology of Ido and follow how an ordinary man came to take some extremely cruel decisions. To do that I made up a fictitious biography and imagined his character. It struck me that his ruthlessness came from his businessman’s nature, because top businessmen have to be ruthless in the same way elite military men need to be.”

Human traits are one thing — but how did Hunter delve into the simian mind so as to metamorphose into an ape for “Kafka’s Monkey”?

“It’s been a real challenge,” she admits. “But I worked with a movement director a lot. I also studied them at the zoo and watched many videos. So, while I tried getting my body to behave like a chimpanzee, the chimp Red Peter is actually trying to be a human, not a chimp. But he sometimes forgets to be a human — and becomes like this … “

In an instant, Hunter became like a chimp right there in front of me — even her arms suddenly seemed to be longer and dangling. “So I have to be the both,” she explains. “I have to have a chimp inside and be Peter, who tried very hard to be a human.” And amazingly, she continues to be Peter and plays with pencils and a lighter exactly how a cheeky monkey might.

But Hunter says Red Peter was not a bizarre role for her to play. “I’ve played lots of roles as a man or a child, so when people say to me ‘Oh, you played a monkey,’ for me it’s the same as playing another human or nonhuman character. If there is a text, it’s necessary to be a Sherlock Holmes and tease all the facts out of it. For me, acting is a lot about observation.”

“Kafka’s Monkey” runs till May 6 at Theatre Tram in Setagaya-ku, Tokyo. Tickets cost between ¥2,500-¥5,000. For more details, call Setagaya Public Theatre at (03) 5432-1526, or visit