Kathryn Hunter is one of those actresses who has never really crossed my radar despite being feted as one of the finest actors working in the country. I’m aware that she was one of the first women to play King Lear, but beyond that nothing much, so I was quite keen to have the opportunity to rectify this by seeing her in the one-woman play Kafka’s Monkey.
In the Young Vic’s studio, she plays Red Peter, a chimp who was captured in the wild and put in a tiny cage; he realises that the only way out is to become “human,” and sets about adopting human mannerisms, spitting, smoking and drinking, eventually learning to speak. The play is delivered in the form of a speech given to a mysterious “Academy” and Red Peter recounts his life, weighed down with the absolute conviction that Red Peter doesn’t equate his new human life with freedom, and sees that as something he’ll never have again.
Hunter delivers an astonishing physical performance, demonstrating an amazing flexibility, twisting her body into shapes that totally convinced as a chimp trying to repress his animal nature. And whilst it is a desperately sad account, there is enough humour in Hunter’s portrayal to make this an totally engaging night at the theatre with emotional highs and lows.