Fugard Theatre’s production of Kunene and the King is masterful! Talented, seasoned actors gave powerful performances capturing the audience’s full attention. John Kani’s new play presents the deep pent-up emotions of South Africans before and after the end of apartheid twenty-five years ago. No holds barred, it gets to the heart of things.
My first visit to South Africa was in 1987 – before the end of apartheid. Since then, I’ve returned often and noted many changes. In reflection, Kani’s play is a racial and political catharsis. At the end of the play, the sold-out house seemed stunned. Some had tears in their eyes in reaction to honest emotions so vividly portrayed – anger, hatred, fear, compassion, and hope….
Kunene and the King premiered in April at The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The performance is a co-production between The Fugard and Royal Shakespeare Company. The play reunites a “powerhouse team of director Janice Honeyman, playwright, writer, actor, activist John Kani, and world-renowned classical actor Sir Antony Sher“.
Kunene and the King “beautifully captures the complex divides of race, class, and politics in a remarkable, moving new play”. Michael Billington, The Guardian
Kani’s play is a “fitting tribute to mark the anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections after apartheid”. In the play Kani and Sher play two elderly men “from contrasting walks of life thrust together to reflect on a quarter century of change”. In Kani’s words – “Their relationship examines the very foundation on which our democracy is built.”
John Kani is Lunga Kunene, “a headstrong African male nurse contracted to care for cantankerous white actor Jack Morris, Antony Sher”. Jack is coping with terminal liver cancer and determined to play King Lear before he dies. To pass time, Lunga helps Jack practice lines for his role in Shakespeare’s play. During their crass and edgy interactions, they mellow, get to know each other, and develop an unlikely friendship.
Kunene only knows Julius Caesar from his school days, because “it’s about a failed conspiracy, and at the time one play was considered enough Shakespeare for a native child”.
As Kunene learns the plot, he shares his disappointment that King Lear failed to “consult ancestors” – something an African would do. Kunene compares the characteristics of King Lear’s three daughters Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia to South African Presidents Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, and Jacob Zuma. True to form, Jack snaps back quickly reminding him that King Lear is an English play, not African.
Kani and Sher
John Kani and Anthony Sher share a love of Shakespeare. Like the characters they play, the have vastly different backgrounds. Kani grew up in the Eastern Cape while Sher, the child of an affluent Jewish family, is from Sea Point.
Accomplished Kani began acting in high school. He met fellow activist, actor, playwright, and director Athol Fugard in the 1960s. After touring, teaching, and performing in the US and Australia, Kani returned to South Africa in the 1970s. At that time during the Black Consciousness Movement, he experienced the brutal injustices of apartheid and had a rocky relationship with South African police.
“Kunene and Jack need to shake their habit of treating the other as a specimen: one of ‘you people’, white or black. This isn’t always easy.” TheatreCat Libby Purves
Kani has received recognition and awards for his work, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Cape Town and a South African Film and Television Lifetime Achievement Award. Today, he’s executive trustee of the Market Theatre Foundation, director of the Market Theatre Laboratory, and Chairman of the National Arts Council of South Africa.
At 19, Antony Sher left South Africa and moved to London to begin an acting career. He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1982. Three years later he won the Laurence Olivier Best Actor award for his performance in the title role of Richard III. In 1997, Sher won a second Olivier for his portrayal of Stanley Spencer in Stanley.
Sher became a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2000. He met his partner, Gregory Doran, in London. Doran is Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“Kani’s writing remains deeply incisive, full of both anger and understanding…” Dave Fargnoli, The Stage
I’m privileged to have attended Kunene and the King – there’s much to learn from the play. It was a magnificent performance and memorable evening.