Last Updated on January 31, 2020 by Fiona Maclean
John Kani and Anthony Sher – Kunene and the King.
Kunene and the King, playing at The Ambassadors Theatre, brings together on stage two of the finest actors South Africa has ever produced. John Kani (actor, director, playwright and cultural activist) and Anthony Sher (who studied drama in the UK and rose to become one of the foremost Shakespearean actors of his generation) are a double act, a tour de force in a play that depicts the rage, hurt and ongoing conflict in contemporary South African life.
The play, written by Kani, knits together autobiographical and biographical aspects of the actors’ lives with a love of Shakespeare. It has many interwoven themes dealing with death, politics, racism, power and frailty while revealing many painful political and personal truths about the Apartheid era and the 25 years that have followed since 1994. The play premiered in 2019 at the RSC’s theatre The Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon before transferring to The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town. Now it has finally arrived on the London stage. It is directed by Janice Honeyman, one of South Africa’s finest directors.
On the surface, the story is simple enough yet the play is complex, multi-layered and a nuanced exposition of the personal as political. Jack Morris (Anthony Sher) is terminally ill with stage four liver cancer. He is due to play King Lear and is attempting to learn his lines, determined to fulfil his thespian ambition while aware that his days are numbered. He discharges himself from hospital on the condition that he have a full-time carer. Sister Lunga Kunene (John Kani) is not the white, blond nurse he anticipated – his inability to pronounce an African surname plus the fact that male nurses are called ‘sister’ adds to his confusion – and a testy relationship develops between the two men. A life-long alcoholic, Morris continues to slug from bottles of gin that he has secreted all over his home.
Morris is the King – not only because he is preparing to play King Lear but also because he represents the old, white guard who benefited from the Apartheid era, an all-powerful group who have lost their hegemony and should be journeying towards awareness of its own arrogance and abuse. Morris is surprised to discover that his nurse carer, Kunene, shares his love of Shakespeare. He first encountered the Bard at school when he was taught Julius Caesar that had been translated into Xhosa, an African language that is his mother tongue. This is in fact what happened to John Kani as a schoolboy in South Africa where Julius Caesar was the only Shakespearean play taught to black pupils who had an inferior education to those of their white peers. A wonderful scene ensues where Morris, wryly noting his interest in funeral scenes, recites the funeral oration with Kunene, one in English and the other in Xhosa.
As the play progresses, Morris continually displays longstanding racist attitudes and behaviour, keeping up a daily humiliation of a black man whom, as he reminds him often, he pays to look after him. It is a scenario played out on a daily basis in South Africa where white people continue, on the whole, to be cared for by black people. The perpetuation of the master-servant relationship comes to a boil. Morris professes not to be interested in politics, yet he declares that he has been happy to benefit from what Apartheid offered him as a white man. He is not interested in hearing about Kunene’s experiences as a black man living under the Apartheid regime.
All the while Morris grows increasingly frail. Sher becomes even more powerful on stage as he nears his end – raging against the dying of the light. When his pain becomes unendurable, Kunene gets him to recite lines or to discuss the intricacies of King Lear with him – a play within a play. A storm breaks out – a daily occurrence in Johannesburg in summer – as the great cathartic scene in King Lear mirrors a catharsis in Kunene and the King too. Kunene’s frustration and anger finally boils over and the men rage at one another about the past and present social relations in South Africa.
Kunene and the King is a masterclass of superb acting, two men from a divided South African past whose relationship cannot escape the trauma that continues to create upheaval in contemporary South Africa. Kani and Sher straddle the personal and the political with great skill, Kani combining compassion and rage while Sher portrays racist arrogance coupled with dependence and frailty. An added factor in the poignancy of the drama is the fact that the two men on stage really did grow up on different sides of a divided country. ‘We are from two different planets,’ observes Morris to which Kunene replies, ‘no, it’s just called South Africa.’
Jack is surprised at the compassion he receives from black people – he only sees post-Apartheid corruption, violence, murder and economic ruin. Kunene angrily responds with his experiences under Apartheid, from the personal – the destruction of his dream of becoming a doctor – to the political – cruelty meted out to the black population, the rape of women in the white homes they worked in, children shot while protesting about their inferior education, political prisoners tortured, their bodies burnt while across town in the white suburbs, men barbecued meat for lunch.
This is a compassionate play that deals head-on with the painful topic of death and dying. It is also an angry play that reflects the discrepancy of experience by a range of South Africans as to what the ending of Apartheid has delivered. In the final scene, Kunene points out to Jack that white people voted for Mandela to get protection from black peoples’ rage. Black people voted for Mandela to get a better future. ‘You got your protection, did I get my better future?’ he asks.
While Kunene and the King is an important play to have been staged in South Africa at this point in time, it also has to resonate for a broader audience. It does just that as racism is increasing in contemporary societies across the globe, while unchecked privilege maintains huge discrepancies of power and opportunity. Much like the complex and timeless King Lear itself, that continues to deliver a universal message, the same can be said of Kunene and the King.
Kunene and the King from the RSC, plays at the Ambassadors Theatre until 28 March 2020.
Looking for somewhere to dine pre or post-theatre? Check out our recommended restaurant guide for Soho London.
Also showing in the West End at the moment and highly recommended is EndGame at the Harold Pinter Theatre
And, if you feel like venturing west, we can recommend Faustus: That Damned Woman at the Lyric, Hammersmith