Review: Report to an Academy, Old Red Lion Theatre ★★★☆☆

by Chris Dobson

Franz Kafka’s short story A Report to an Academy was first published in 1917, in the German magazine Der Jude. In this theatrical adaptation, directed by German theatre director Gabriele Jakobi, Robert McNamara plays the sole character, Red Peter, an ape who, over the course of five years, has learned the way of humans. The play questions, therefore, the very nature of what it means to be human – what distinguishes us from apes?

Robert McNamara in Report to an Academy at Old Red Lion Theatre. Photo: J. Yi Photography

Like the text it is based on, the play is quite short, yet even so, it occasionally feels stretched out, as Kafka’s original story does not provide a great deal of dramatic material to work with. The monologue narrative structure feels quaint – not necessarily a bad thing – and thematically, the play is part travel-adventure, part fantasy-memoir. In the intimate performance space of the Old Red Lion Theatre, McNamara makes good use of a limited amount of props: His hat, a walking stick and a few pieces of furniture. He gives an energetic performance, almost making the audience – whom he addresses as the academy – believe that he truly was once, not so long ago, an ape. McNamara mimics the repeated movements of an animal, held in captivity, and he spits with a bestial vigour.

Robert McNamara in Report to an Academy at Old Red Lion Theatre. Photo: J. Yi Photography

His costume, designed by Alisa Mandel, is a smart black suit, which matches McNamara’s prim accent, serving as an amusing contrast to his past life as an ape. Marianne Meadows’s lighting design helps to signal the transitions from scene to scene, as the lights either dim or turn a vivid blue or red. American Theatre company Scena has produced an amusing and heartfelt version of Kafka’s short story, gently exploring the distinction between free will and captivity. It is a shame that Denise Rose’s sound design sometimes distracts from the central performance of McNamara, which in itself quite captivating.

Report to an Academy is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 30 July

Chris Dobson is a freelance journalist from the North of England. He now lives in North London and is passionate about theatre, film and literature.