Kunene and the King

Reviewer's rating

This new play written by the renowned actor John Kani is a co-production between the RSC and the Fugard Theatre, Cape Town, and comes to London after successful runs in both South Africa and Stratford. Fugard and Shakespeare are the presiding influences over the action which sets out to describe a relationship between a refractory patient and his nurse, while offering a commentary on South African society and politics since the end of apartheid.

It is a two-hander in which Kani plays an elderly nurse, Lunga Kunene, who is assigned the task of caring for a terminally ill actor, Jack Morris, embodied by Anthony Sher. Most of the action takes place is Morris’ comfortably shambolic home in a suburb of Johannesburg before switching to Kunene’s more modest accommodation in Soweto. Scene and mood changes are filtered through live music sung by Anna Mudeka, who gets a lot across to us in a short space of time.

Jack is in denial about many things, whether his death, the continuing alcoholism that is causing it, or the fact that the production of ‘King Lear’ for which he is still preparing, will never happen with him in the role. The early stages of the action are largely about Kunene disabusing Jack of these illusions and suffering the full force of Jack’s residual reflexive racism (even though he claims to be an artist and never a specifically political person) The general points made here are the familiar ones of white privilege continuing into post-apartheid society and the uneasy, brittle nature of any social reconciliation. There is, however, plenty of humour to get things moving, especially when mediated through the talents of two such distinguished players.

The meat of the play, though, rests in its synergy with Shakespeare, whose bust dominates the set, and whose works leak into the dialogue and arguments and action with increasing force. There are obvious parallels made between Jack playing King Lear and the plot of that play and what we see here – another elderly, cantankerous figure raging against the dying of the light and in many ways the agent of his own downfall. There is even a storm scene that moves the action along and in the course of which Jack learns some humbling truths about himself and those less fortunate than himself. You are aware too that Sher himself has played Lear in recent years.

But the thrust of Kani’s argument is more ambitious – that is that it is only through Shakespeare, standing as a symbol for creative art in general, that barriers can be broken down in a society as fractured and mistrustful as South Africa. The most effective scene in the play comes when Jack and Lunga rehearse a scene from ‘Julius Caesar’, one in English, the other in Xhosa, as part of their common inheritance, and find a common understanding for the first time.

The great strength of this play is in its two performers, whose technical skill is peerless and whose experience of working with Shakespeare both independently and together is exemplary. Kani conveys great dignity and restraint as well as measured anger; Sher covers the emotional waterfront from splashy, ribald humour and self-pity, through to precise wide-eyed evocation, as he recounts, in a memorable monologue near the end, the kindness his character experiences unexpectedly in a Soweto taxi.

However, if you take these two actors away, together with the plush realism of Janice Honeyman’s production, you do then wonder how much remains other than a vehicle for their outstanding talents. This is where the parallel with Fugard begins to bite. Kani of course knows Fugard’s work from the inside as a performer, and you can see that he wants to channel Fugard’s skill in mediating large political fault-lines through character and narrative that powerfully humanises the issues on a domestic level. However, unfortunately this text ‘tells rather than shows’, and repeats its points in a way that could usefully lose fifteen minutes of the running-time. Less, as so often, would be more.

Perhaps twenty-five years on is still too short a distance in time to assess the moral balance of post-apartheid South Africa. While this piece has humour, charm and moments of pathos it is not bound together by the kind of analytic grip that allowed Fugard at his best to show the visceral way in which apartheid distorted and disfigured the lives of ordinary people in a naturalistic language that people many continents away could immediately grasp. This play is both too generalised in sentiment and too specific in its casting to reach out and grab both hearts and minds in an enduring way.