Thursday 7th July 2022 at the Old Red Lion Theatre, London
Reviewer: Jonathan Walfisz
The experience of watching Report to an Academy at the Old Red Lion Theatre is one of two halves, despite being a one-act play.
The play is based on the 1917 Franz Kafka short story of the same name and follows Red Peter, an ape who was captured in Africa and has since learned to speak and act as a human.
Red Peter tells the woeful story of his imprisonment on a ship to Europe and his experience assimilating among humankind to the aforementioned academy, or in this case, Thursday night’s audience.
At the forefront of the one-act monologue is Robert McNamara’s performance. With a Frankensteinesque lumber, he drags his body onto stage, his cane giving each movement audible punctuation. With his bowler hat, you could almost mistake him for a Beckett character.
Throughout the monologue, McNamara maintains a steely sinister cowl that breaks out into jovial frivolities unexpectedly. His diction is Shakespearian as he slices through his sentences, delivering each turn of his story with maniacal glee. When McNamara stops speaking, it is either to break into comic slapstick or haunting animalistic contortions, all the more affecting as they juxtapose the eloquence of his speech.
The acting from McNamara and the direction by Gabriele Jakobi to drag his Red Peter around the room is excellent.
However, my enjoyment of the piece was sullied by my dislike of the use of the text.
Based on Kafka, it seems like the script has near enough directly lifted the short story verbatim. I don’t think it works particularly well.
First of all, it takes nearly 10 minutes before Red Peter is actually telling the story of his capture. Before that it’s all soliloquy, rejoicing in language but little else. Despite the bowler hat, this isn’t Beckett and the character introducing themselves through linguistic circles doesn’t invoke interest. Thankfully, it’s saved by the invigorating performance of McNamara and we’re onto the crux of the story, Red Peter’s capture.
But even here, Kafka’s language is the problem. German sentences are long and often multi-clausal in a way few English writers naturally affect.
To some degree it works in creating the image of an ape so desperate to communicate their humanity, but for the most part it means a transfixing performance that blurs the language into background noise. You listen out for key words and take the rest of the meaning from McNamara’s expressive face.
Kafka’s writing is brilliant, but it wasn’t made for theatre. The careful points he lays out through his text of identity, assimilation, immigration and even vegetarianism are essential to the readings of the story. Those details are sadly lost.
What isn’t lost is its cunning display of the tension between a human speaker and an animalistic nature. The direction and bare staging do capture the essence of the piece, but for Kafka’s full intentions, you’re better off reading the story.
Report to an Academy plays the Old Red Lion Theatre, London until July 30th 2022 – find your tickets here.