Kafka’s Monkey | Preview & Interview
The Lyric, Belfast • 24 – 26 August 2017
Interview: John Patrick Higgins
I meet Adam Turns in a booth at the MAC. This is not a coincidence – we had arranged to meet there to discuss his latest venture: a one man show at the Lyric named Kafka’s Monkey, which he’s bringing to the stage with the associate director of Prime Cut, Rhiann Jeffrey in the director’s chair. It’s an adaptation of Kafka’s short story A Report to an Academy and tells the story of Red Peter, the original educated ape, discoursing at length on the very nature of his existence. Turns, pencil thin and pellucid, frowns his way through the interview; he’s wiry and intense and, just possibly, gasping for a cigarette. I order a coffee, he enjoys a tap water and we knuckle down to the interview.
So, Adam, I understand that you will be portraying a monkey. Is this right?
“It is right. Kafka’s short story has been adapted by Colin Teevan into a one act stage play. It’s the story of a little monkey. It is unspecified what kind of monkey it is in the text, but we think we’re going to go with chimp.”
That’s an ape, I say. The corners of his mouth tighten into what isn’t a smile.
“You would call a chimp a monkey though, wouldn’t you?”
No, I say. I’m very much a purist on the monkey/ape divide.
“Kafka’s Ape doesn’t sound as good.”
I try it out for size a couple of times. He’s right. Kafka’s Ape sounds stupid. Fair enough. With a slight shake of the head he returns to the story.
“This ‘ape’ has been invited to an academy in front of an audience to give an account of his former life because he has left it all behind. He’s an educated ape: he can talk, he can think, he can feel, he can love. And it’s the story of how he came to be how he now is. It’s quite dark and perhaps bittersweet.”
Are there lots of laughs?
“There are some laughs.”
You’ve been training quite hard in rehearsals, to the point where you’ve burst your hand! How did you train to be an ape? Turns warms to the theme, opening with a quote for the ages.
“I have skinned my knuckles whilst developing my ape-walk, yes. We, the assistant director, Seon Simpson and I, did a lot of research into the physicality of the ape. It’s quite difficult to do as their anatomy is completely different: their hips are set much further back. If you take a human rib cage and pelvis, you’ll notice that as you walk you’ll sway, as your limbs tend to alternate. With apes this is not the case: it’s everything left and everything right, in turn. So breaking that habit of walking in a human way is quite difficult. The ape walk is hard. It takes a while to get used to it and for it not to look ridiculous. I can see this show being quite physically demanding. I’m very “limby” and my legs are twice the length of an ape’s, so there are certain physical restrictions we’ve been putting on me, like tying my knees. But none of that will be there in the actual play – it’s just for me to get used to using my body in a different way. There was also the suggestion of weights – you know, like for joggers for whom jogging isn’t punishment enough – around my wrists to make them hang.”
At this point Turns assays a “gibbon run”, and shows me an ape/man hybrid, his top lip stretched over his teeth, his face a grimacing simian mask. It is quite frankly impressive. Is Red Peter a “monkey see, monkey do” type of ape, I ask him. He is not, according to Adam.
“In the play Peter explains that “the imitation of human beings was not something that he aspired to”. The only reason that he came to be what he now is was that he was captured, shipped off, and put in a cage with the intention of placing him in a zoo in Hamburg. He finds that by mimicking the sailors he can make them laugh and, eventually, he learns to speak.”
The anthropomorphised ape runs the risk of being fatuously allegorical. What does Adam think the story is about and what are he and Rhiann attempting to achieve with the production?
“You can read the play in a number of ways. It’s very close to the original source material: you could read it as a comment on animal rights; you could read it as a comment on the nature of humanity, or colonialism. The prevailing theory is that it is a commentary on the assimilation of Jewish culture into Western European. I think what I and (director) Rhiann are trying to do is not to laden it with too much meaning because often if you go to it too heavily with your “concept” I think you can push too hard and it actually takes away from the point of the play. The point of the play is not to tell you the answer. The point of the play is to open the discussion.”
What is your monkey costume? Fez and cymbals? Evening dress?
“It will be a suit of some sort. Baggy, as though he was wearing his dad’s suit. We just want to make him look off and odd. It can’t be too tight – I need room to manoeuvre.”
Have you thought about hand shoes?
I think you’re missing a trick. Hand shoes would be good.
“I’m not wearing a monkey costume,” he sighs, “there’s no fake fur, there’s no makeup. Hopefully the whole thing will be created by the performance.”
You are quite bestial to begin with.
“Yes I am. Thank you.”