KUNENE AND THE KING. Written by John Kani. Directed by Janice Honeyman. With John Kani and Sir Antony Sher. Design: Birrie le Roux. Lighting: Mannie Manim. Music: Neo Muyanga. Onstage musician: Lungiswa Plaatjies. Sound design recreated for the Fugard Theatre: David Classen. Pictures: Ellie Kurttz. Co-produced by the Fugard Theatre/Eric Abraham and the RSC. Fugard Theatre.

Kunene and the King review

KAREN RUTTER reviews

Kunene and the King comes with one helluva load of theatrical cred. First of all, it’s written by John Kani, one of South Africa’s most lauded theatre-makers ever. Then he plays opposite Sir Antony Sher, yet another South African legend who’s conquered the stage in his adopted UK home. Just when you thought it couldn’t get better, you have the multiple-award-winning Janice Honeyman as director. Add uber-designer Birrie le Roux, heartfelt composer Neo Muyanga, and theatre renaissance man Mannie Manim on lighting, and – well, you see what I mean.

A co-production with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Kunene and the King first opened a few months back in London, garnering rave reviews from such tough quarters as The Guardian and The Times. And now it’s opened here.

At its heart an intimate portrait of the relationship between two old men, it is the context wherein they meet that determines the dynamics of their relationship. Lunga Kunene (Kani) is a male nurse, assigned as home carer to terminal liver-cancer patient Jack Morris (Sher). Already, some sort of power positioning is in play. For example, one would assume that the medical professional would be taking charge. But this is South Africa circa 2019, and these are two men who have lived through apartheid on different sides of the colour wall, and both have pre-conceived ideas about race and culture and who’s the boss.

Kunene and the King review

Common ground

Additionally, Morris is an actor and an alcoholic. And arrogant, to go with it. Meanwhile Lunga hides a hot streak of anger and disappointment behind a genial mask. From the start their social interaction looks doomed to an awkward limbo made up of mutual offenses and misunderstandings. But the men find common ground through literature – Shakespeare, to be exact – as Jack prepares for his upcoming role as King Lear, and Lunga, recalling his own introduction to the Bard via Julius Caesar in isiXhosa, is engaged.

Shakespeare becomes a goal (for Jack to get better enough to perform his role), a distraction (for Lunga to dangle as bait when Jack’s pain kicks in), a cultural soccer ball (as debate arises around Lear’s daughters and their inheritance) and ultimately the basis of a wobbly friendship.

Wobbly, because as much as the men find moments of commonality, it’s a frail construct in the face of decades of racial distrust and discrimination. With Jack’s sell-by date looking inevitable, a happy ending seems a bridge too far.

Kunene and the King review

Magnificent performances

Both Kani and Sher turn in magnificent performances. Kani plays it restrained, gentle, patient, a smartly-turned out professional  – until he can’t anymore, his whole frame resonating with released rage and bitterness. Sher is a shambling mess, all tearaway hair and disheveled tracksuit pants, revolting in his whiteness yet able to inspire sympathy all the same.

There are moments of great tenderness between them, and great ugliness as well. The throw-away lines of a white liberal South African racist are lobbed as lethally as hand grenades, while the struggle between individual and collective positions (“you people”, “my people”) is unrelenting. And yet – there are also many moments of humour in this play. It could, on one level, be called a tragi-comedy.

Honeyman directs with a deft but delicate hand, drawing out a tenuous relationship between two different-but-similar characters with great sensitivity. Lungiswa Plaatjies’ onstage singing added to the intimacy of the production.

Two points of criticism: The by rote recounting of key moments in the liberation struggle, by Lunga. It felt like Apartheid 101 – and perhaps this was the point, for UK audiences. But it felt dry. In this respect, Lunga’s character came across as linear, Jack’s less so. Also, the ending. Liver Cancer – The Musical?

But I digress. This reunion of a sort – Honeyman, Sher, Kani and Manim have all worked together on various productions – is a showcase of veteran South African talent. For this reason alone, go and see it.

What: Kunene and the King

Where and when: The Fugard Theatre from 30 April 2019

Book: 021 461 4554 or www.thefugard.com

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