Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – until 23 April 2019
Casting Antony Sher as a white, South African, Shakespearean actor in John Kani’s ferocious, funny and emotive new play Kunene & the King couldn’t be more perfect – for all the obvious reasons.
Kani’s enthralling, unmissable two-hander, in which he appears alongside Sher, plays to the Cape Town-born actor’s strong suit and he is magnificent. This is a gem of a role for him and he delivers a bravura performance filled with passion, outrage and emotion.
Kunene & the King opened at the RSC’s Swan Theatre with Sher playing a gin-swilling, selfish, thesp determined to deliver one last performance as King Lear before succumbing to liver cancer.
It’s set in modern day Johannesburg, 25 years after the end of apartheid and dying actor Jack Morris, dishevelled, scruffy and in pain, is trying to learn his lines from Lear when he is confronted with a new black carer, Lunga Kunene (Kani). The two men clash from the outset. Morris was expecting a white nurse to help him through his battle to “get better”. “You thought I would be white, blonde, blue-eyed and big tits, didn’t you?” says Kunene.
After a shaky start the pair, from either side of South Africa’s cultural and racial divide, come together through a love of Shakespeare but it isn’t easy. Morris has lived a life of self-absorption. He misses the old regime when whites ruled and he couldn’t care less about how Lunga suffered under apartheid. “This is a new experience for you. You are going to have a black man living in your house,” jests the nurse.
Morris, despite terrible pain, proves a brilliant raconteur, as most actors are. He brings the audience to its knees with an hysterical tale about what actors think about (post show shopping lists mainly) while performing for a sparse matinee audience of “blue rinses”.
But the scene is quickly followed by a truly shocking and stomach-churning exchange that had Swan Theatre-goers gasp with revulsion.
The men’s analysis of Lear throws up lots of metaphors about South Africa, a divided kingdom and a king out of touch with his people. And Morris too is playing out the role without knowing it.
He is an actor at the top of his game who is oblivious to the plight of the poor, black and wretched in his own land until illness forces him to re-evaluate his life.
Kunene and the King is political, of course it is. During one fierce row Morris brings up the old accusations against black South Africa. He hits a raw nerve and they lash out at each other.
But behind the fury there’s a very human story. Morris is giving the greatest performance of his life, struggling to overcome appalling pain and suffering to play a king who suffers appallingly.
Occasionally the mask drops and we see a terrified man whose fear of dying is greater than any stage fright he has ever experienced.
As he faces the last act in a generally dissolute life he is forced to contemplate how very different it could have all been if he had been born black.
Kunene opens a window into a world he refused to acknowledge until he has no choice.
Sher gives a masterclass in audience manipulation. One minute there are howls of laughter and the next a stunned silence as he is stricken by pain.
Kani, who broke new ground in the 1980s when he defied the authorities and played Othello opposite a white cast, is engaging, explosive and accusing.
He’s right to be angry and his incendiary dialogue is perfectly pitched as is Janice Honeyman’s taut direction.
And I loved the musical interludes from Lungiswa Plaatjies, at the start and during scene changes, that were sung in, what I assume is Xhosa.
I don’t know what she was singing about but it added to the atmosphere of the production.
When I told a (white) South African friend of mine about the play she rolled her eyes and sighed. “Apartheid was 25 years ago. It’s time they let it rest.”
But the truth is that many in South Africa thought that the end of apartheid would mean a better life – and they’re still waiting.
Kunene and the King runs in the Swan Theatre until April 23. It will play at the Fugard Theatre, Cape Town, from April 30 – May 25.
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