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FringeReview UK 2020

Kunene and the King

Royal Shakespeare Company and Fugard Theatre, Cape Town

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Contemporary, Drama, International, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Short Plays, Theatre, World Theatre

Venue: RSC Ambassadors Theatre, London


Low Down

Directed by Janice Honeyman, designed by Birrie Le Roux, lit by Mannie Manim and with Neo Muyanga as Composer, music played live by Anna Mudeka. Jonathan Ruddick’s Sound Designer. Company Voice Work’s by Cathleen McCarron, Assistant Director’s Mel Crouch. Directing Intern (Fugard) Siphelo Mtshetsha.


There may be hurricanoes and towering cataracts but they’re in a chair-upended study. Lear’s words – spoken by a dying actor and his nurse who’s helping him learn the part – bring up a rage of history.

If you raise un-laid ghosts in South Africa you’d expect they live still, as ancestors. Shakespeare’s clearly one and this play can take, absorb and give us something back even from King Lear. South Africa’s hidden history of Shakespeare as part of the anti-Apartheid resistance is given strong witness here. It’s Kani’s and here he makes it Kunene’s, the isiXhosa version of Julius Caesar – the single available Shakespeare – meant to teach that insurrection is useless.

So often linked with Athol Fugard, it’s wonderful to be reminded what a terrific playwright, as well as actor John Kani is. Transferring from Stratford to the Ambassadors this RSC and Fugard Theatre premiere of his Kunene and the King stars Kani and Anthony Sher as agonists.

Shakespeare-reading nurse Lunga Kunene had to suspend his dreams of being a doctor through the most ironic twist of the Soweto riots. Now out of retirement he’s asked to look after a terminally ill white actor Jack Morris whose acceptance of the new South Africa is on a par with his acceptance of his Stage 4 liver cancer, and his secret, disastrous swigs from an increasingly inventive repertoire of hideaways. This is for laughs, but the flip-side, Morris’ evasions and the casual use of ‘boy’ and worse, are the stuff of nightmare.

This even 25 years on, which landmark this play addresses too. ‘People who say they’re not political are often the most political of all.’ This works; studded with such memorably bitter insights, usually from Kunene. Yet the dice is never loaded. Even with the ‘you people’ Morris fires unguardedly, prompting finally an exasperated mirror.

This is Kani’s paradox. Resentment, violent words and all it escalates to. From the ‘good neighbourliness’ excusing racist segregation to the creation of puppet states by the South African regime, Kunene is goaded into ripostes like ‘We thank you for our independence, but we would like our freedom too.’

Kani ensures the parallels in the men’s lives as well as King Lear are offset by what divides them. Hence both are partly estranged from their children, and Morris is divorced. If Morris curmudgeons into the crusty old Lear you expect, Kunene’s mixture of Fool – he explains the isiXhosa term – and Kent is more lightly worn. Kunene has a furious dignity, even when enduring a breathtaking insult to his face. Like that key shock in Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys this elicited gasps. Kani springs more of these.

Kani brings to his role a layered command that’s gradually stripped away revealing the hurt and sense of a South Africa’s 25 years being partly wasted. Sher shuffling in slippers and managing to look perilous and bilious to an alarming degree, seems winced into his past self, full of (at best) patronizing, at worst racist slurs. Sher’s mix of drawn-out shudders and quicksilver darting for a swig come from an insight deeply lived-in.

There’s adroit nods too to Driving Miss Daisy (which Kani’s performed) and most intriguingly prallels to Edward Petherbridge’s autobiographical My Perfect Mind. Suffering a stroke just before he takes on Lear, Petherbridge recalls his cleaner – who turns out to be a Romanian Shakespeare professor – coaches him in his lines. Entrancing as that is, Kani’s play is a vaster experience, brilliantly riven.

Directed with a steady unskeining by Janice Honeyman, it’s designed by Birrie Le Roux with a lovingly detailed set of a study, even down to a poster of the young Sher in Hamlet, as well as overturned chairs and a study entrenched in self-absorption. Above and surrounding are glass panels that spectacularly light up in Mannie Manim’s lighting design with sudden electrical and heavy storms. The latter set swung round exposes an eggshell green kitchen lovingly kept up from the 1960s, neatly cluttered by solitary living; and flowers. Neo Muyanga’s composition is essentially confined to the solo singing of Anna Mudeka. Jonathan Ruddick’s sound design comes into its own in the last stretch, from music on a 45 to that spectacular storm.

Insulted beyond patience, Kunene furiously tears off the Truth and Reconciliation mantras both learned. Morris’s outrageous justifications for the way things were bring not just ripostes but finally, after a hailstorm and hurricano on the outside for once, a shift of scene.

With the balance of power shifted to Kunene’s kitchen where Morris unexpectedly arrives en route to frail publicity for the upcoming Lear, there’s glimmerings of what Morris has taken too little note of. A taxi ride both terrifying and humanizing in the midst of storm is the pitch of Lear parallels.

It’s in Kunene’s deferred relation of personal history Morris didn’t want to hear that shows Kani’s greatness. The fury with which he relates his murderous anger towards old ANC comrades for first creating conditions that killed his father, and then for thwarting his ambitions. It all goes back to Apartheid and Kani’s sense that despite this uneasy friendship, where both men seem to come together, they’re separated every time by the bubbling up of particularly Morris’ heinous knee-jerks. Each time they approach being blinded by revelation, something sets them back. Bound by patient/carer necessity, they can’t escape prodding the other’s wounds.

In such an intimate confrontation, there’s things that can’t be explored. Women’s suffering is invoked but never cited. And onstage singer and musician Anna Mudeka’s evocative singing isn’t meant to redress that, or the predominantly young population. But for the history literally layered on Kani’s and Sher’s brows, it’s difficult to see how anything lasting 100 minutes with two characters could refract as much history, hurt and gestures to healing explored here. Their performances will remain as two of the most outstanding this past year.

Kani’s own poignant note records the death of his brother from liver cancer on the last day of 2019. The shadow of this must have informed the way he bestows bereavement on querulous Jack Morris. And shows a strain of greatness.