21st March 17
I hadn’t realised that the play ‘Kafka’s Ape’, currently showing at the Alexander Bar, was in fact an adaptation of a short story by Franz Kafka called ‘A Report To An Academy’. The production, adapted and directed by Phala O. Phala, won a Silver Standard Bank Ovation Award at the National Arts Festival in 2015. Theatre at the Alexander is rarely mainstream and always a surprise. This play was no exception. Tony Bonani Miyambo plays an ape, Red Peter, captured on a hunt in West Africa. It finds itself crammed into a small cage on a ship. Years later, the ape gives a speech to an academy - to us, the audience - about his experiences and his ‘evolution’ into an almost-human.
This play raises complex issues about what it is to be human, about freedom, conformity and identity. Red Peter learns to copy human behaviour not because he has become more human, or because he recognises that we are higher beings. No – in fact, quite the opposite. We are the oppressors and the controllers – we act not out of humanity or compassion. Red Peter copies humans because he is looking for a way out. Interestingly, the ape does not consider that finding a way out of his choking cage equates to freedom. It cannot; for in escaping the confines of the cage, he continues to be metaphorically shackled.
Contradictions and ironies within the play are rife. Ultimately, Red Peter embraces anthropomorphism - not because we are the more noble race, but to avoid suffering. He strives to become more human, realising that gaining notoriety as a speaker will be less confining than life in a zoo. Inevitably, his memories of his ancestry and his former life dim, and he feels disgust in the partner ape with whom he is provided, seeing in her “the madness of a half-trained animal”. The ape’s trainers have triumphed, but the result is a simmering tragedy they fail to see.
This is a solo show, and Tony Bonani Miyambo is simply brilliant in his depiction of Red Peter. He makes suspension of disbelief easy with his frequent sneezes and head shakes, and his curled hands conjuring up crude ape-pads. His dexterity at one point – a brief return to the ape’s former habitat – remind us what this creature has lost for the sake of our amazement. There are occasional amusing touches, particularly in Red Peter’s interaction with the audience. However, overall this poignant and thought-provoking production made me rather melancholy. Societal norms continue to confine not only Red Peter, but also the human race.
Tickets: R100 (R120 on the door)