Mannered monkey maketh manStudio 7’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s story ‘A Report to an Academy’ is an ode to the absurd and a poignant monologue on human frailty.
A rather well-spoken ape walks on stage—suited up, with a hat on. He is to greet an academy of erudites, the ‘founder/director’, the ‘chairman of the board’ and a ‘research fellow’ (this one stung a bit) to explain his transition from a measly, uncivilised monkey living in the forest to a middle-class European (sub)human. However, before he commences, he puts out a warning, “I regret that I cannot comply with your request to the extent you desire,” he says.
The ape is Red Peter, red because of the big wound on his face and Peter because, well, he is now one of us. He is the central character of the play ‘Red Peter’ ongoing at Hotel Vajra. Produced by Studio 7 and directed by Sabine Lehman, it is adapted from Franz Kafka’s story ‘A Report to an Academy.’ Written in 1917, the story follows the cruel metamorphosis of this ape-turned-man and the observations he makes as he climbs the ‘civilisation’ ladder.
‘Red Peter’ is a fantastic play. It’s funny, cruel, dark and touching at the same time. Red Peter, fantastically played by Kundoon Shakya, evokes the full spectrum of emotions—the audience laughs as he points out the shallowness of human hierarchies and hushes as he recalls the abuse he faced from his captures.
Shot, injured and imprisoned on a ship, Red Peter soon finds out that he can find a way out if he manages to please the sailors, so he puts on performances and learns how to spit, smoke a pipe, and drink. The sailors, already exploited and bitter with their lives, enjoy mocking and abusing the ape. But it is when he utters his first ‘hello’ that the ‘way out’ is granted to him, for a talking ape has much more social capital than the working-class sailors.
After many stints at the show bizz, Red Peter is now a man of some stature, he’s invited to academies, scientific conferences and even private dinners to describe his ‘indigenous perspective.’ But he soon reveals to the audience that he is rather lonely and finds no satisfaction in leading this human life, which he finds is full of performances, facades and hypocrisy.
Along with Red Peter, three academy members (played by Alize Biannic, Glory Thapa and Ashant Sharma) act as surrogates for the humans he’s met along the way—the captors, sailors, and researchers. The trio are perfectly cast—their flamboyant, elaborate movements across the stage perfectly embody the duplicity of our value systems, especially in the modern world.
Through the story, Kafka and, in turn, Lehman argue that there’s a sense of nihilism in embracing these systems that dictate what a human should speak, wear, and behave (which, of course, is dictated by the few at the top,) as it requires abandonment of more naturalistic instincts. Red Peter’s eyes glisten as he remembers his memories of the forest, where his ‘barbarism’ was embraced and accepted.
It hints towards the many ways that we assimilate—sometimes abandoning everything from our past—to fit into a mould that’ll give us some power in the new environment. From this angle, Red Peter is the story of migrants—some brought in as slaves, others seeking refuge—and the ugly ways they’ve had to acculture themselves.
Moreover, it is Red Peter who is more human than his counterparts— he seems to have understood and forgiven the sailors, and he is aware of the invisible ceilings that dictate one’s social position. “Red Peter has done in five years what humans took 200 thousand years,” claims a member of the academy. This claim is as much impressive as it is alarming.
In a classic Kafka-esque fashion, Red Peter claims that final freedom is, of course, death. But it is interesting to observe why Red Peter put in the effort to please the sailors (and live) rather than take the opportunity to jump ship. This perhaps hints towards humans’ notorious nature of growing accustomed to anything and everything (say, the 100 years of Rana regime on our part) and how it’s our inherent instinct to persevere through the hardest of times.
Red Peter is one of the finest plays I’ve seen in a while. It’s sharp, funny, and skillfully executed. The music adds so much context and personality to the production; from the ‘directed by Robert B Weide’ meme sound to the hilarious use of Josh Turner’s country song ‘Your Man,’ the play is rooted in the absurdity of the present. I mean, a literal ape is more rational and empathetic than the humans around him. And if that isn’t more telling, then I don’t know what is.
The play will continue till June 25.
When: Till June 25
Where: Hotel Vajra, Bijeshwari, Kathmandu
Time: 7:15 pm
Tickets: Rs500, Rs300 for students