Who: Tony Bonani Miyambo and Phala O Phala in Assoc. with Holden Street Theatres
Where: Holden Street Theatre
When: 5-15 March
Tickets: $20-25, here
I was one of the ‘theatre geek’ kids at school, and I grew up wanting to be an actress. Perhaps because of this, my favourite shows tend to be ones that showcase the rawness and beauty of the actor’s craft. Forget fancy sets or gimmicks – I just want to see a performer fully embody their character right down to their toes, immersing me in their world with every word and gesture. In Kafka’s Ape, an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s short story ‘A Report for An Academy’, Tony Bonani Miyambo totally satisfied my love of unfiltered, powerhouse performances.
Miyambo plays ‘Red Peter’, an ape who has begun evolving into a human as a result of his captivity. As he tells us the story of his life, Miyambo embodies an existence partway between ape and human with astonishing commitment, detail, and emotion. He slides effortlessly between his more humanlike and apelike affectations, somehow convincing us of a character that can both speak with perfect eloquent English and howl, pound, crawl on all fours like an ape. It’s an uncanny, sometimes disturbing, and constantly compelling performance. I was fascinated by how cleverly Miyambo merged the mannerisms of human and ape, even in the smallest of gestures – using his mouth to assist in ruffling through a newspaper, for example, or the way he holds and grips a bottle. There is humour, but also an incredibly deep pain running throughout the show as we see the cruelty inflicted on Red Peter, his desperation and hope so vividly portrayed.
Red Peter tells the audience the story of his life, beginning in a West African jungle and detailing his capture, voyage to Europe, and eventual education and evolution as he desperately tries to find a way out of his caged existence. He imitated human behaviour, he tells us, as it was the only way he could think of to escape from his captivity. As a black man from South Africa, Miyambo’s performance of Kafka’s text imbues it with contemporary resonance. It subtly calls upon apartheid, slavery, racism, and the black experience. The show prompted me to reflect on how oppressed minorities must imitate their oppressors in order to safely and freely navigate the world, to find a way out of their marginalisation. But is this worth tossing aside one’s former life? Worth cutting oneself off from one’s past? The sense of loss and alienation of identity in the performance is profound and moving.
In Kafka’s Ape, Miyambo has done an excellent job of showing us humanity through the eyes of something not-quite-human, and of bringing the enigmatic character of Red Peter to life. As I left the show, one line kept repeating in my head: ‘my skin is not necessarily my truth’. This show is a compelling exploration of identity, appearance, and the truth of the human experience, but it will resonate with anyone who wants to watch an actor be damn good at their craft.