Kunene and the King

Reviewer's Rating

What a fine play is Kunene and the King! In certain moments while attending to it I worried fleetingly that it was a bit contrived, but those moments passed swiftly. Most of the time I was totally caught up in the confrontation between an elderly black man and an ageing, mortally ill white man who ultimately are emblematic of the divisions, fears, aspirations and bigotry that are the history of South Africa.

The play is a two-hander that is, in its way, a celebration and contemplation of twenty-five years since the first post-apartheid elections held in South Africa. Anthony Sher plays Jack Morris, an old white actor dying of cancer but determined to beat it for long enough so that he can play King Lear as he has recently been invited to do. John Kani, who wrote this most moving play, is Lunga Kunene, a carer-nurse sent to look after Jack Morris. The abrasiveness, the differences between them, and the persistent dark humour of the text, very lightly echo something like Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. And, as in The Odd Couple, the two men are the flip side of the same coin and pretty soon they have abrasively bonded.

The play works so well not only because of depth given to it by the deep and persistent references to the history of South Africa but also because the characters are very believable people with individual, specific stories to tell. And, of course, there is the constant reference to the language and key speeches of King Lear. Shakespeare is the hidden hero in this play, somehow suggesting the importance of art for telling it like it is and for leading not only to understanding but also to reconciliation. Like Lear, Sher’s Jack Morris is estranged from his children – as is Lunga Kunene from his. They turn out to have much in common: including their love for Shakespeare and the lessons of his plays.

I don’t want to push the King Lear trope too hard, but as in that play, the characters are making a journey that we follow through their pain into greater wisdom and tolerance, greater self-understanding and finally reconciliation and real, loving relationship. Jack can be as querulous, stubborn and irritating as Lear; and Lunga Kunene is amazing in his self-control, self-knowledge and healing ability to understand and, with rare moments of anger, accept. The director Janice Honeyman has staged the play well with a set by Birrie Le Roux that shows us the house of each man. The spirit of Shakespeare hovers throughout. And from time to time the singing musician Lungiswa Plaatjies has interludes of superbly evocative South African music composed by Neo Muyangas that help create mood and a sense of place as well as history. This is a provocative and satisfying theatre with both actors and also the singer in top form.

The play is done without an interval in ninety minutes and keeps one’s attention throughout. It is a great privilege to see two legendary actors working together with such commitment, warmth, humour and searing power.