Report to an Academy – Old Red Lion Theatre, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

 Writer: Franz Kafka

Director: Gabriele Jakobi

Despite its austere title, Report to an Academy is unexceptedly riveting, thanks to an utterly compelling performance by Robert McNamara. He plays Red Peter, an ape taken into captivity, who delivers a fierce account of his life to us as the assembled members of an august scientific academy. It’s a penetrating adaptation by Gabriele Jakobi of Kafka’s short story of ‘A Report to an Academy’ as a theatrical monologue.

The play begins in silence and darkness. An insistent tapping is heard as slowly the figure of Peter emerges, stiff and awkward, dependent on his cane. Elegantly dressed in a suit and hat, Peter begins to deliver his monologue. He recounts his capture on a West Africa hunting expedition and his painful journey to Europe, held captive in a cage, taunted and mocked by the ship’s crew.

There is nothing sweet or whimsical here. Peter has learnt language and behaviour from his captors, but eschews their coarseness. He rarely performs as the ape he once was. Indeed it is an uncomfortable shock when he squats and whoops, acting out his former self. And when, suddenly distressed, he crouches mechanically rocking back and forth, the moment is deeply moving. We are appalled by the inhumane behaviour that has reduced him to this state.

It’s wonderful story-telling and Jakobi’s uncompromising direction points up the sheer uncanniness of the story, allowing McNamara’s performance to have a strange integrity. As Peter, he is at all times unpredictable, stalking around the stage or speaking with quiet menace in his own space. Although he insistently engages with audience members we sense he is locked into his private torment. His chilling stare demands no response. His face contorts with a range of emotions. It is as if we are in the grip of another Ancient Mariner. We can’t look away until his tale is done.

Both the lighting and music, while unshowy, are precise and wholly effective. Marianne Meadows’ lighting sharply denotes change of scene and mood, while Denise Rose’s sound design adds to the poignancy of Peter’s story.

There are more surprises in store. Kafka dares a further surreal element – Peter finds his way into music hall, and we see its influence on his movement. Despite difficulties in his older years… he can still move with a sense of rhythm, working his cane in both hands, still the showman.

Runs until 30 July 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Compelling theatre

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