The planet of the apes on Kathmandu stageCivilisation and instinct take centre stage in Studio 7’s latest adaptation of Kafka's short story
Franz Kafka’s Report to an Academy is first and foremost about conflict which operates on several levels: from the obvious similarities between the simian and human, to the three-point tug-of-war between memory, identity and assimilation.
Studio 7’s adaptation of the story for the Vajra Hotel stage titled Red Peter preserves this motif to the t, turning the first-person narrative into a theatrical performance where past and present intermingle.
Directed by Sabine Lehmann (The Conference of the Birds, The Little Prince), the play begins in a warmly-lit room, awash with blue, designed by Ludmilla Hungerhuber. In the back, three images of the same chimpanzee stare at the audience through narrow windows.
A long, sturdy rope is looped into a swing upstage beside a ladder that appears to connect the ground with the heavens, a symbolic ascent, or descent, of evolution. It is at once a ship, a jungle, private bedroom, and the academic stage, a space that exists almost as a mental landscape, in fantasy and reality. Then, behold: an ape appears.
In tailored pants and a white shirt, Red Peter the eponymous monkey puts on a tie. He is readying himself for an appearance at the Academy where he is to present a paper on how he ‘transformed’ into a human.
But he is more than an exotic evolutionary specimen, as we find out later. He huffs and puffs, letting out guttural sounds: aspirated “Hon’ble” which then slowly becomes “ono’ble”, but he is not entirely satisfied and the time is running out, the appointment drawing close. It has been five years since he began this miraculous journey and yet he trips over an H.
Enter three academicians in brightly coloured gaudy robes looking more like circus performers than serious philosophers and scientists they insist they are. The air of self-import, colonial and imperial in its smell, contrasts strikingly with Red Peter’s own retrained disposition. After all, they have millions of years of evolutionary divergence at their disposal, while Red Peter only five. “The report?” they ask pointedly, for that is really all they care about.
“Members of the Academy,” says Red Peter, gently bowing. He thanks the National Geographic for a recent cover, and adds turning towards the audience: “Gentleman, ladies, dear guests.”
Immediately, we are also transported to the same liminal landscape, metaphysical and postmodernist, as Red Peter breaks the fourth wall, as if to remind us that whatever happens in the story is as much our concern as it is his, no exceptions.
We learn of his past in the West African forest, where he was shot and wounded one day by the human employees of a Research Centre + Circus. It is the ensuing bloody scar that earns him his name. Captured and locked in a tiny cage on a cargo ship, he was then transported to Europe. For the first time, he remarks to the Academy and to us, he was without a way out.
And no, he does not mean freedom by this, as ‘freedom’, he explains, drawing analogy with trapeze artists in the variety shows, is nothing but a self-controlled movement, and all too deceiving a notion.
This search for a way out drives Red Peter and the course of the play. Thus, bound by the crate walls, his own apehood dies and he is made anew. He then begins to ‘ape’, as it were, the crude sailors who smoke their pipes and drink like fish. He learns how to spit and say ‘Hello’. But far from smooth sailing, the transformation begins with cruelty, as the sailors, who have themselves suffered oppression, exercise brutality on Red Peter deeming him of a lower rank than themselves.
But Red Peter is now also clever. He loses his animal instinct and takes on a strange calmness. When on land, he joins the show business because he ‘knows’ the other option would be a cage in the zoological garden where there would be no way out.
Kundoon Shakya as Red Peter is perfectly cast. His own sweltering transformation into an ape becoming a man is arresting and magnetic. In addition, although not present in the original story, the three Academicians add comedic, ‘human’ touch to the story. Exquisitely played by Alizé Biannic, Aashant Sharma and Glory Thapa, they are pompous, self-congratulatory, and altogether whole.
Their lines, taken from contemporary newspaper headlines and stories, throw searing light on the irony of humanity which in its depth is no different than what it terms as primitive, uncivilised and animalistic.
In between perfect choreographies, they effortlessly brush off generational colonial atrocities with a wave of their hands and coyly wink at the audience. Here, compassion takes on contrasting meanings. How can children be burdened with blame for the crimes of their parents and ancestors, they ask.
Director Lehmann has also added references to the Syrian migrant crisis, boats upturned and sunk in the sea, and the supposed superiority of the European and Western thought to support the pertinence of the play, and its drama.
But what is the cost of this assimilation? Red Peter is now himself a philosopher who has trotted out of the cave. Performance, domination, self-optimisation, he remarks, maketh man – and all this he has learnt to do. In the process, he has also warred with his own nature. At the outset, the play may feel like an exploration of evolutionary theories, but it then quickly turns into a serious dissection of the mind-body question.
As such, embodying Descartes’s ‘cogito ergo sum’ in one respect, Red Peter also calls to question identity as performance and the essence of the self if it is to be constantly re-enacted.
In the end, this fiercely existential play closes with an echo to the ending of another story: the creatures look from ape to man, and from man to ape, and from ape to man again, but already it is impossible to say which was which.
A Stage Adaptation of Franz Kafka’s ‘Report To an Academy’
Directed by Sabine Lehmann
Studio 7 at Hotel Vajra, Swyambhu
1 hour 15 minutes
22–25 June 2023, 7 PM onwards
Ticket Price: VIP Rs 1,000, Standard Rs 700, Students discount with ID available (limited seating)
For reservation: [email protected] / 015371545