As he clambers onstage in the glimmer before the production begins, you’re discomforted: you are not sure if he’s man or beast. It’s an ambiguity Tony Miyambo holds with sublime authority over the duration of this astonishing piece of theatre, allowing Franz Kafka’s disturbing 1917 tale of Red Peter which was published in fragmentary form, a story about an ape gentrified by human beings, to blossom in Johannesburg, in 2015.
Channelling a heady concatenation of implied references to Joseph Merrick, also known as the Elephant Man in Victorian culture; Sara Baartman, South Africa’s very own monsterised human being; xenophobic realities and homophobia; and the most recently discovered fossil, homo naledi, the play comprises poignant truisms about identity and the danger of shallowly judging others – or putting those who look different from oneself in a context of display for entertainment. In Miyambo’s hands, it is completely mesmerising.
Rather than dressing as a chimp, Miyambo embraces the notion of chimp-hood from within, and as his animal lip-smacking, snorting and gesturing burst through his tamed veneer, as he stands with a potent sense of physical disability and discomfort upon the podium dressed in a red shirt and tie – the story is crafted around an academic presentation on the evolution of man – your empathy for his complex and tragic plight is enriched and informed.
Miyambo confronts the audience, challenging the theatre’s fourth wall, with cautionary respect and the characteristic curiosity of a primate. You might get your foot or hand shaken, or your hair picked through for tasty fleas during the performance, but it’s a gentle level of engagement and doesn’t disrupt the caveats of animality presented here.
Several years ago, Jemma Kahn and Bryan van Niekerk, under the direction of Sylvaine Strike staged a wordless play at the Wits Theatre called The Animals. It was one of those theatre gems with a short season and not a huge public profile, which nevertheless unequivocally raised the bar in theatrical brilliance. Miyambo’s embrace of Red Peter with all his vulnerabilities and embarrassing faux pas reaches a similar level of theatrical sophistication and fire to Kahn and van Niekerk’s. His blend of empathy, self-deprecation and unswerving focus gives this production the wherewithal to turn your head.
But further to all of this, Miyambo is a performer of nimble and great diversity. His interpretation of Red Peter is utterly flawless in his mimicry of a monkey mimicking a human interface and how his unique quandary is cynical and naive simultaneously. Nothing feels out of place in the interstices of this Red Peter. Miyambo’s performance will leave you shattered by how ideas of humanity cleave with the monkey’s reflection on the base hypocrisies of the human race.
Above all, Kafka’s Ape is a story told with clarity and acumen and, coupled with a very simple set and sensitive lighting decisions, its central premises will haunt you. It is, you must be warned, staged in arguably the theatre complex’s most disrespectful venue for an audience, but the levity and intensity of the 50 minutes of this ten-out-of-ten piece of theatre will supersede any physical discomfort.
- Kafka’s Ape is adapted from Franz Kafka’s short story A Report to an Academy by Phala O. Phala, who also directs the production. It features costume and set design by Leisel Retief and is performed by Tony Miyambo. It performs on September 27 at the Wits Amphitheatre as part of the So So1o festival hosted by Wits University.