Friday, May 01, 2009

Monkey Business


When I was in Japan last year I took this footage of some Japanese macaques. Such insanely wonderful beings. A week later and 500kms east I spent half a day at a monkey park which contained around 1000 primates from more than 100 species. Some were free-roaming (you could walk around Spider Monkey Island, for example) while others were in pens or cages or open-range fields of various sizes.

This week I arrived at Malthouse Theatre's production of Kafka's Monkey with no expectations and these were duly met. It's a hugely acclaimed production by a very talented English performer Kathryn Hunter, but it really didn't work for me.

It's an adaptation of Kafka's "A Report to an Academy" and it's undoubtedly a show that a lot of people will (and do) like and enjoy and appreciate and take something away from. I'm not writing that in a snide superior way. This is a wholly personal response, you know. I just thought it did a vague injustice to two things: Kafka and monkeys.

Kafka's stories are incredibly difficult to translate into performance, mainly because they're so damn literary. They do things that reinvent the relationships between language and reality, narrative and identity. What I've always loved about his stuff is the way they produce spaces (or places) that are in themselves a sense of character. You can't divorce the narrative voice or interior psychology of each tale from the environments in which they exist, and I have incredibly vivid images of the rooms, doorways, tunnels and streets of his stories. This is why his narratives are so uncanny - to misquote Tommy Pynchon, they're "not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into-"...

Reading Kafka isn't about uncovering the secret at the heart of his writing but of getting progressively folded into it. You get knotted into an increasingly tangled world which is pure language. I'm not sure it's possible to recreate that experience theatrically. I wish I'd seen that Icelandic version of Metamorphosis which played in Tasmania recently - it sounded like a pretty successful attempt. But Kafka's Monkey didn't come close to the mark for me - it's staged in a nearly empty white space (apart from an almost irrelevant lectern and a giant projected photo of a monkey). The performance is very energetic but not evocative of those interior spaces - it's a disentanglement. It has a point and the hour or so is devoted to explaining that point. That so many reviews see that point as an incredibly reductive one - humans and monkeys are pretty similar; or our sense of humanity is pretty tenuous; or who were are is a performance - seems to me a good argument to go read Kafka rather than go to the theatre.

Now: monkeys. To stick with Pynchon, here's another quote:

"Once, the only reason Men kept Dogs was for food. Noting that among Men no crime was quite so abhorr'd as eating the flesh of another human, Dog quickly learned to act as human as possible... so we know how to evoke from you, Man, one day at a time, at least enough Mercy for one more day of Life. Nonetheless, however accomplish'd, our Lives are never settled, - we go on as tail-wagging Scheherazades, ever a step away from the dread Palm Leaf, nightly delaying the Blades of our Masters by telling back to them tales of their humanity."

The monkey of Kafka's Monkey only appears to hold value or interest in the way it tells us tales of our humanity. Hunter's performance really confused me - it's nothing like a monkey's at all. It felt like someone who has never actually seen a monkey trying to act like one. And, even more confusingly, that monkey is acting like a human. In fact, there was no monkey in the performance for me, at all. While a lot of critics have remarked on Hunter's big expressive eyes, simian agility and loose-limbed monkeytude, all of that seemed to me just an interesting human, not at all gesturing towards the primate. The silence of the monkey, for instance, is given no space here. In short, the monkey is just a metaphor for ourselves in this production, and I didn't find any real respect for the animal at all.

John-Paul Hussey's "monkey" trilogy - Chocolate Monkey, Space Munki and Love Monkey come to mind when thinking about Hunter's performance. I only saw the second two of these works and I wasn't that impressed by Space Munki, but Love Monkey was an impressive piece of theatre. The ape isn't a simple metaphor or screen for Hussey. Instead he seems to have cultivated a persona which is "Monkey" and which allows him to weave together his autobiography, fabulist fictions, meta-theatre, parapsychology and Jungian archetypes. He doesn't play a monkey but is a monkey - he doesn't interpret monkeys but labels what he is "monkey". I don't think I'm explaining that very well.

Then there's the Harry Harlow project by James Saunders, Martyn Coutts, Brian Lipson and Kelly Ryall. I saw a development showing of this last year and don't know where it's at now, but it was an intensely affecting work which engaged the human/monkey dynamic without reducing the ape to a mirror of ourselves - in fact, it questioned this very process by focusing on the often terrible experiments conducted by one of the pioneers of child psychology and producing a true sense of the beautiful, complex interior world of the monkey which is not simply an infantilised version of the human. It was also thoroughly theatrical - its narrative progressed in an elliptical, non-rational fashion, and the physicality of performer Saunders was the most visceral evidence of the dance between the civilised man and the animal which underscores Kafka's story.

Maybe it's because I don't think of Kafka as a humanist - when he wrote all those stories from the perspective of monkeys, dogs, bugs and others denied language, he wasn't upholding some essential dignity to Man, but was writing of how humanity is as knotty and inchoate as the rest of existence - inseparable, really. It's not that we're like monkeys at all.

"So vast is our land that no fable could do justice to its vastness, the heavens can scarcely span it -" Kafka, "The Great Wall of China".

What a long and rambling post. On a competely coincidental note, I discovered a band the other day named Gregor Samsa (named, presumably, after the main character in Kafka's "Metamorphosis").

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