Kunene and the King
South African actor, activist and playwright John Kani’s new two-hander weaves weighty and wide-ranging personal themes with a nation’s political history in this world premiere at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon Avon.
The Kunene of the play’s title is a black South African nurse from Soweto, played by the writer himself. He is sent to care for an ageing actor and Shakespeare enthusiast who has been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. Jack Morris, played by Antony Sher, is rehearsing for the role of King Lear and was not expecting a black or a male nurse.
Directed by Janice Honeyman, the play charts key moments in the relationship between these two men to reveal a complex web of deeply rooted prejudices. As they get to know each other and learn to “see” beyond skin colour, the post-apartheid history of South Africa is teased out in microcosm. The personal and political fuse in a story spanning a quarter century of changes.
25 years have passed since the first post-apartheid democratic elections in South Africa in which all races were finally eligible to vote for the first time. In 1994 Nelson Mandela became the first black president in South African history, leading the African National Congress to victory. ‘Kunene and the King’ marks this important political anniversary by tackling much: perhaps too much.
It is a play about ageing and acting. Cancer and mortality. Fragility and loneliness. Fear and frustration. Memory and change. It is also a play about friendship and racism. Prejudice and discrimination. Emancipation and tolerance. South African political history. It also tackles the power of theatre. The transforming and timeless relevance of Shakespeare. Despite two fine performances, the narrative occasionally creaks under the weight of what sometimes feels like a heavy-handed ‘issues’ play.
Posters of Sher from real-life performances earlier in his career adorn the walls of the simple but effective set: a small apartment complete with Shakespeare bust and overloaded bookshelves. The posters are a poignant reminder of the ravages of age, providing a brutal contrast between the stooped and slippered old man we see shuffling around the stage and his fresh-faced ‘Macbeth’ from decades past. He cuts a sorrowful figure in his jogging bottoms and loose fitting grey woolly cardigan, a modern-day Lear descending into frustration and fear as the cancer strikes.
The universal and uniting nature of Shakespeare powers the play’s best moments: hearing both actors recite Mark Antony’s ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech from Julius Caesar in Xhosa, one of South Africa’s eleven official languages, and English is a highlight.
John Kani’s performance as the beleaguered nurse strikes a convincing balance between empathy for his patient and anger at the barely suppressed racism which so easily bubbles to the surface in conversations between the two men. Moving on from apartheid is clearly more complex than abolition. In the personal/political balance, it may be stronger on the former, but this new play shines an important light on a historic anniversary.
‘Kunene and the King’ is running at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 23 April 2019.