Kunene and the King
Royal Shakespeare Company and Fugard Theatre, Cape Town
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
The time is now, South Africa, 25 years after the end of apartheid, where dying, dyspeptic actor Jack Morris is struggling to prepare a last performance as King Lear, and being cared for by the nurse Lunga Kunene.
John Kani’s play might be anticipated as a bespoke showpiece for two great actors, himself and Antony Sher, both South Africans, black and white, who worked together in the brilliant African multi-lingual RSC production of The Tempest a decade ago.
As such, it works brilliantly. But this terrific two-hander is much more than that. Hilarious, poignant, illuminating, tackling racism, illness, dignity, economic neglect and the craft of acting Shakespeare—it is one of the best new plays seen at the RSC for many years.
Sher, who retains some of the halting speech patterns of his recent acclaimed performance as Lear, is mesmerizingly good as Morris, a dishevelled figure who emerges like a cornered badger, one of the ‘old white guard’, who had never asked the surname of his long-serving maid, and addresses his new nurse as ‘you people’.
But he is a man going through his own ‘cataracts and hurricanoes’, learning through Kunene’s fierce compassion something of the suffering that his privileged life has made him unwilling to see.
It’s Shakespeare who provides the bridge of communication between the two men, with a little in-house fun along the way as the old actor inveighs against modernist productions that “have to have a Konzept with a capital K, and an umlaut.”
Kani too is excellent and draws upon real-life experience to create one of the play’s most memorable scenes. His school was allowed to read Julius Caesar in translation because the apartheid authorities believed it showed the futility of conspiracy, whereas his teacher secretly interpreted it as predicting the inevitable end of dictatorship.
So as an English exercise, Morris reads the "Friends, Romans, countrymen," each line of which is repeated by Kani’s Kanune in the Xhosa language. The effect is magnificent.
Morris is forced eventually to hear the story of the Sharpeville massacre that Kanune attended as a nurse, yet the play is far from being a one-sided tract, as the latter recalls his father’s shop being burnt down by rebels for trading with whites in order to help the starving.
And irony of ironies, Kani/Kanune reflects on modern South Africa banning Shakespeare in schools in order to decolonise the curriculum. What would Mandela, who used his plays to hold political discussions with fellow prisoners on Robben Island, think of that?
Singer and musician Lungiswa Plaatjies adds beautiful, emotional click-language interludes between the scenes.