tue 16/07/2024

Kunene and the King, Ambassadors Theatre review - a Shakespearean voyage through the legacy of apartheid | reviews, news & interviews

Kunene and the King, Ambassadors Theatre review - a Shakespearean voyage through the legacy of apartheid

Kunene and the King, Ambassadors Theatre review - a Shakespearean voyage through the legacy of apartheid

A strange meeting across the boundary of race: John Kani co-stars in his two-hander with Antony Sher

Equals in a brave new world? John Kani, left, Antony SherImages - Ellie Kurttz for RSC

John Kani’s Kunene and the King is history in microcosm.

Its premiere at the RSC last year, in this co-production with Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre, coincided with the 25th anniversary of the end of apartheid, offering a chance to assess the momentous changes in South African society over that time. But if that makes you expect any sort of public action on a grand scale, think again: this two-hander is a character study of two men, one white, one black, both in their own ways alone and pondering death, the details of whose lives gradually come to speak something, sotto-voce, about where their country is today.

The playwright stars opposite Antony Sher, both players bringing their own intimate, shared histories to the piece. Kani, in his time the first black actor to play Othello under apartheid, was Caliban to his fellow South African’s Prospero in The Tempest a decade ago, in an RSC production by Janice Honeyman (who directs here). The spirit of Shakespeare presides gloriously over Kunene and the King, the soaring rage and pity of King Lear especially (Sher played that role in 2016). There’s an echo, too, surely of that other Lear-linked drama, Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser, with its comparably uneasy balance of relationship between a furious egotist and the supportive figure who attends on him.

A gasp of pain can freeze Sher's face in blank shock 

The attention that Kani’s character, Lunga Kunene, offers to Sher’s Jack Morris is of a more urgent kind, however: he’s an agency nurse who has come to look after his charge through the final stages of liver cancer. There’s friction between them from the start, with Jack taking Kunene for a burglar, a supposed intrusion that immediately brings out the worst in him: he’s a curmudgeonly old cuss, the petulance of age amplified somehow by the changes that his “white man’s world” has undergone. He’s an actor, of some renown if the Hamlet poster is anything to go by, in preparation for a scheduled appearance as Lear, which he believes he can somehow go through with, diagnosis be damned. His lack of pity is corrosive, whether he’s applying it to his own failing body, his nurse-companion, or the new reality that surrounds him.

Kani’s Kunene has immeasurably more poise, one born out of character – he’s absorbed his own disappointments, which have been considerable – as well, surely, from that particular acquiescence enforced on the black population under the apartheid regime. His view on what happened on “his” side of society is jaundiced too, with memories of the Soweto uprising and the circumstances by which his plans to qualify as a doctor were dashed by the actions of his “comrades”. There's rich incidental humour, never more so than when Kani is playing with disputed allegiances of possession – “my culture”, “you people” – that confirm how deep the tribalism across race remains. But then there are nice moments bringing home that these two old men do have things in common aside from their shared sardonic disillusion with the course that South African politics has taken after Mandela (a litany of crooks, in short).Kunene and the KingKani’s script is entertaining throughout, even if some elements seem occasionally pat: some of the verbal squabbling is stretched, while Jack’s dipso diversions – he has bottles of gin hidden away all over the place – seem stock elements of an act that Sher can do almost by comic rote. But he varies that lighter register with something deeper: a gasp of pain can freeze his face in blank shock, while when the twists of the third and final act (Kunene runs a little over 90 minutes, no interval) take him into unfamiliar territory, he reveals an unexpected, more attractive side to his character, in which an adjustment of medication plays a role.

What Kani brings to his part is more enduring: his is a quieter voice, with a deeper resonance. Dignity is a key theme of this play, as is empathy, and Kunene has both from the start: for Jack, it’s a steep slope to climb. Kunene and the King moves most in its quieter moments, with Sher’s line at the very end, “Now I see you!”, making clear that he has made the leap of compassion. It’s a “speak what we feel” moment, a profound, unexpected apotheosis.

Kani doesn’t overdo the “enlightenment”, but he certainly brings in some fascinating material, no least the history of performing Shakespeare under the old regime: translations into the native languages were severely restricted, Julius Caesar allowed, in Xhosa, because the authorities believed that the conspirators – read, terrorists – came to a bad end. There’s sheer delight, too, in how Kunene picks apart the plot of Lear: “it’s not an African story”, the king should have married again, and where are the ancestors? For a hint of what such local elements might bring to such drama, the interludes have Anna Mudeka performing a vocal score by Neo Muyanga, its sounds taking us away, perhaps, to some blasted veld. Birrie le Roux’s design makes a neat distinction between the neglect and disorder of Jack’s home – of Sher’s sheer scruffiness, too – and the tidy thrift of Kunene’s Soweto kitchen, its huge old fridge catching time and place as perfectly as a prop can. Janice Honeyman’s direction excels in getting just such details right.

It’s a 'speak what we feel' moment, a profound, unexpected apotheosis


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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