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Kunene & the King

7th May 19

Laura Davidson

Having reviewed John Kani's plays before, I already knew him to be a master playwright. His new two-handed offering, Kunene & the King, directed by Janice Honeyman, is a joint Royal Shakespeare Company and Fugard Theatre production.
Opening on 2nd May 2019, it heralds the general election a week later, twenty-five years after the end of the travesty that was apartheid. Kani was 51 years old when he was permitted to vote for the first time. Now 76 years of age, he plays Lunga Kanene alongside Sir Anthony Sher as Jack Morris - a grumpy, ailing South African actor riddled with liver cancer. Kunene is sent to be his carer, and the two begin an uneasy relationship, with Morris always ready to remind him of his employed status. His nurse is not happy happy with his employer’s theatricality, or being referred to flippantly as ‘darling’. However, Morris’ initial prejudiced disrespect for Kunene gradually dissipates upon the discovery that he would have been a doctor, but for the apartheid struggle, and is well versed in Shakespeare. Kunene’s love for Julius Ceasar is in fact autobiographical, as Kani himself studied the Xhosa translation of it by W. B. Mdledle at school. When Morris rehearses for Shakespeare’s King Lear, having been cast as the lead in the Artscape’s forthcoming production, Kunene is happy to help him learn his lines. The futility of this exercise echoes wordlessly throughout their rehearsals, like fear of “the big C”; loud yet unexpressed. Recognising a fellow aficionado, as the friendship burgeons Morris offers his precious Shakespearian bust to Kunene, who cherishes it.

There is little action in this play except for Morris’ occasional urgent bowel movements, but the keen observational script and rich dialogue more than makes up for it. Whilst a powerful piece of social commentary, it is the convincing characterisation and quality of the acting – which is absolutely superb – that makes the production so utterly compelling. These two old men, once enemies purely due to the colour of their skin, still suspicious, begin to understand more about their commonalities. Later, Morris’ medication makes him dance – but dancing is already in Kunene’s bones. The production explores friendship, dependence, stubbornness, death, and the South African legacy a quarter of a century after apartheid’s end. It is a play which feels at once contemporary and yet inevitably steeped in the past. Layers peel back through the mechanism of the play within a play; a poignant reminder of the passing of time. The script does not shirk from tricky topics including the Marikana massacre, land grabs and corruption. Zuma is a combined Goneril and Regan (for those unfamiliar with King Lear, this is not a compliment); Mbeki is Cordelia. King Lear is a play countenancing despair, like Morris, and yet inalienably hopeful, like Mandela.
This play is raw, at times brutal, always enthralling, sometimes amusing. The two ageing men are thrown together for morbid reasons, and yet Kani manages to inject regular spikes of humour to lighten the mood. The simple stage set has only one set change, and there is no interval. Between scenes, musician Lungiswa Plaatjiies’ melodic voice soothes from the eves. Sher is magnificent as the cantankerous old drunkard Morris, a sad old man like the King he hopes to depict. Kani is strong, too, as the stalwart Kunene – a rock upon whom to lean. For the first time in his life the white man takes a taxi, and is astonished at the care he receives from his fellow passengers. He finds his way to Soweto in weather reminiscent of the catastrophic storm in the play for which he has been preparing. Morris rails at suffering and death like Lear to the wind, but in the end “nothing can come of nothing”. Kunene’s emotions spill into rage, but the pair forgive each other and move forward, like their joint hopes for the future of their country. It is only when in Kunene’s own domain that Morris really sees him. Deeply flawed and profoundly human, Morris recognises that he is “a very foolish, fond old man” - but in the end the last laugh is his. The final pervading sense of peace mirrors the two men’s hopes for South Africa. I was surprised at the disappointingly sparse audience for the opening night of this new play from South Africa’s much-loved Kani. The actors fully deserved their standing ovation. I was amongst them – not merely to avoid the awkwardness of social isolation, but because it was richly deserved. Do not miss this play.

Tickets: R190 - R340
(For certain performances there is a 15% discount for pensioners and 10% discount for students and block bookings booked through The Fugard Theatre box office, available for performances from 4 May 2019 onwards).
Dates: 30 April 2019 -

Time: 8.00pm (Saturday and Sunday additional matinees at 3.00pm)

Age restriction: Over 12s

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