Old Red Lion, Islington, London – until 30 July 2022
Reviewed by Debra Stottor
If you’re familiar with Franz Kafka, you’ll be aware of the themes so often present in his work: isolation, alienation, mental and physical struggle – the epitome of ‘Kafkaesque’. Acclaimed German director Gabriele Jakobi’s adaptation of this Kafka short story homes in on all these themes, and adds animal rights into the mix.
An ape is captured during a hunting expedition in West Africa, bundled into a tiny crate and sent to Europe on a ship. Nicknamed ‘Red Peter’ because of his facial injuries, he is taunted and abused by his captors throughout the journey. He needs to survive and to do so, Red Peter learns to mimic the ship’s crew and their language from his cage – including less savoury behaviour such as spitting, smoking a pipe and drinking. By evolving to behave like a human being, Peter devises his escape and ultimately reaches civilisation. The play is his retelling of his life story and transformation to a leading Scientific Academy.
The details of the treatment he endured on board ship are not spared, but more fascinating is how he learns to imitate the humans around him by observation, and how he becomes socialised by ‘apeing’ their behaviour, and therefore of a scientific novelty.
Robert McNamara as Red Peter holds the audience’s attention, a slightly menacing presence as he paces across the stage, tapping his walking cane loudly as he goes and making just enough eye contact to make you feel uneasy.
This one-man play may be just an hour long, but it’s packed with talking points: man playing god, free will, slavery, socialisation, animal rights. The transformation of Red Peter from ape to man shows us the immense potential of animals combined with the worst cruelties of humans, and will leave you questioning whether we humans really are superior.
Report to an Academy was first staged in 2014 in Washington DC, and toured Europe soon after. This production is by Scena, of which McNamara is artistic director. The company brings the best international plays to Washington DC, stimulates cultural exchange between local and international artists, and nurtures original material for the stage; it occupies a unique position on the edges of modern drama.
This is a thought-provoking show, one that will keep you thinking well beyond your journey home.