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The 2009 sell-out production of Kafka’s Monkey comes to Manchester’s new theatre venue Home after a world tour. Olivier Award-winner Kathryn Hunter reprises her role in the one-woman show. Here she explains what it’s like to be a woman playing a monkey playing a man.

I was performing in Fragments – five Beckett shorts directed by Peter Brook – when Walter Meierjohann, associate director at the Young Vic theatre at the time, saw the performance and asked me if I would be interested in playing in Franz Kafka’s A Report to the Academy.

“I hope you won’t be offended”, he said, “but the part I would like to direct you in is an ape, a chimpanzee.”

I had read the short story as a teenager and been fascinated by it. Perhaps like many teenagers, or people who experience life as outsiders, outside the norm, I found it easy to connect to a creature who would like to belong to society, to the culture, but knows that this is unlikely – that sense of difference, yet inside a longing to be who you are and yet belong and so leave your cage of loneliness.

Today, as a woman in my fifties, I feel more integrated, but reading daily in the news the plight of so many immigrants trying to escape oppressive regimes, political or religious persecution or abject poverty, I see how Kafka’s story has as much resonance now as when he wrote it. Then, it was about Jews trying to assimilate into a new culture and denying their own for fear of how they might be viewed and treated. And as we know with hindsight, he was right to be afraid. Afraid, and yet sure that every living being has a right to live free from oppression.

So then the work began. How to create and be this creature of Kafka’s imagination.

The first thing was to get to the facts right. With every role we create as actors there is the “Sherlock Holmes” stage where, like a detective, you collect as much information as possible.

So this is a male chimpanzee, who, in order to escape from his cage, has decided to shed his ape identity and become a human being. He was born in Ghana, shot by Hagenbeck hunters (Hagenbeck was a notorious collector of animals, pygmies and people from other”exotic” cultures) to exhibit in zoos and expositions.

On board the ship that takes him to Hamburg, he learns the skills of spitting, smoking and drinking from the sailors. He then learns to be a performer in a variety theatre, where he achieves fame. He then learns to speak. He becomes a compulsive learner, is invited to social gatherings, from the elite to scientific lectures, and finally is invited to speak to the academy on what it is like to be an ape. This he finds outrageously offensive since he has gone to such extreme efforts to shed his ape-hood but he agrees to do it nevertheless. He questions whether humanity is really so very much more civilised than their ape cousins, since after all this progress and evolution, they do not seem to have acquired much esteem for nature or each other: they are expert killers, oppressors, sometimes torturers and seem to mindlessly destroy their environment.

Red Peter is the name assigned to him on account of the redness of his scars. Red Peter is a wounded creature but at the same time a survivor full of hope, wonder and joy who delights in humankind as much as he is appalled by it. He is an alcoholic but aspires to overcome his traumas.

Observing chimpanzees in zoos, watching videos about the famous primatologist Jane Goodall, who lives with wild chimpanzees in Tanzania, and many, many hours of movement sessions with Ilan Reichel, our extraordinary movement coach, were the basis of finding the chimp. Low centre of gravity, in-turned feet, knuckle walking, gambolling, hoots, grunts, whimpers, screeches – a universe of sounds chimps use to communicate. Observing how still they can be and suddenly bursting into explosive movement. Tough, toned bodies and yet flexible and elastic. A sort of gracefulness within the toughness. The delicacy with which they groom each other, delicately touching another’s hands to denote trust and friendship. Observing how much they like to play, chasing each other round trees and a sort of horseplay of pushing and pulling.

Walter made me improvise the chimp learning to be a human being

Observing how they, in the wild, sleep in the forest canopy, making their own beds with leaves in about five minutes. With Ilan (Reichel, director of movement) we did many hours of improvisation based on these observations. He would correct me saying “more weight in the pelvis”, “stronger torso”, “your hands are not quite right”, “your arms can be longer, heavier”. Then Walter (Meierjohann, director) made me improvise the chimp learning to be a human being. Learning to walk upright, learning to use a knife and fork, to dress himself, to brush his teeth, to become toilet trained.

Achieving the maleness of the chimp was a challenge. I had played men before (Richard III, King Lear) but the maleness of a chimpanzee was more challenging. It is said that a male chimpanzee has the strength of five adult male humans. Suggesting that power requires a mixture of imagination and physical technique. So this was part of the preparation for playing a male chimp who is playing at being a human being.

As rehearsals progressed and I finally came to perform Red Peter, it felt as if the chimp was now inside me. I knew him well – he was a part of me.

When we revived the piece, and I went back to Whipsnade Zoo and watched the chimpanzees in the enclosures and looked into their eyes when they happened to come close, it felt like looking at friends rather than another species. Looking deep into the eyes of a chimpanzee you see a world of experience, wisdom, intelligence, sadness sometimes, wonder and curiosity. He too is looking at you. What does he see in you?

Kafka’s Monkey is at Home, Manchester, 17-27 June

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