As theatrical Odd Couplings go, this one was always going to be at the dangerous edge. How could it be otherwise? Jon Kani’s bold two-hander is set in South Africa a quarter of a century on from the country’s first democratic elections after apartheid, and tackles head-on the personal implications of the supposed new equality.
On the one hand, Jack Morris, a classical actor (white), stricken with liver cancer, self-medicating with alcohol and raging against the dying of his career; on the other, Lunga Kunene, a home nurse (black) sent to look after him and help him realise his dream of playing King Lear before quitting this earthly stage.
So, yes, the King of the title is indeed Shakespeare’s octogenarian tyrant, to whom ageing players are traditionally drawn. But he is also the touchstone of a debate about where sovereignty and authority lie in an apparently renewed nation quite as traumatised and riven as Lear’s dark old realm.
What unfolds is a kind of power struggle, one-on-one, between a proudly emancipated care worker and an old stager who cannot slough off his sense of entitlement from the times of the pre-Mandela ascendancy. It’s situationally comical all right, though dark is the word. Kunene has come to Morris’s house to look after him. His commitment to the task is total. He cannot, will not be patronised or demeaned by his patient, even though his to be billeted in that patient’s own home. From time to time, the dialogue might have come from Neil Simon faced with a plotline of doomed flatsharing.
The director Janice Honeyman manages to keep a sense of dynamism going, even when the action is outgunned by the talking. The result is a taut straight-through hour and a half, punctuated by the strong, sweet singing of Anna Mudeka, which falls like rain on thirsty ground.
It’s impossible, undesirable too, to separate the drama from the large lives of the two performers. There is Sher, Sir Anthony no less, seemingly so assimilated into the British arts establishment that you might be forgiven for overlooking his origins: born into a Lithuanian-Jewish family in Cape Town, grew up in the suburb of Sea Point.
Then drama student in London (though rejected by RADA); then Liverpool Everyman at the dawn of other such notable careers as Julie Walters, Jonathan Pryce, Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell.
The rest is not just history but Histories, plenty of Shakespearian ones, perhaps most memorably Richard III, which embodied the description of that king as a “bottled spider”; not forgetting his breakthrough TV performance as Howard Kirk in the 1981 adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man.
Sharing the stage is John Kani, who is also the author of the play, and a highly respected veteran of anti-apartheid activism. If Shakespeare and his work are as vivid in his own life as they are in his co-star’s, it is hardly surprising. In a programme note, Kani recalls his introduction, as a teenager, to the playwright’s work. It was Julius Caesar, translated into Xhosa.
“It was as if the revolution of knowledge had come into our lives. The purpose of allowing this play to be taught in our native language was to show that if we dared to rise against the establishment (the government) we would all suffer the pain and failure of Brutus… but our teacher taught us differently. He told us that Caesar was ambitious and did not care about the rule of the majority; he was a dictator and would fall, just like the apartheid government of the Afrikaners would.”
Hence there is much autobiographical matter Kani’s Lunga Kunene as he absorbs King Lear and subjects it to forensic examination in the light of his, and his nation’s own experience. It is this downloading of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy into their respective and very different lives which bestows on them a sense of common purpose which even the most enlightened politics will struggle to emulate. Perhaps this is as true of Sher and Kani as it is of the people they are portraying.
Despite, or maybe because of, its weighty themes – cancer, death, oppression, racial hatred to name but a few – Kunene and the King is made remarkably light on its feet by the plain human engagement of these two combatants who, by the end, appear as much apposite as opposite.
Sher manages an extraordinary show of energetic decrepitude, with a defiant rasp, a mighty gut and deteriorating shuffle which come to resemble a final rehearsal for total inertia. Hard now to remember him running the world as Tamberlane or Titus Andronicus as he once did.
Kani, though the older of the two, shadows his charge’s decline with his own robustness, matches his patient’s passing with his own arriving. As author, he may well have sensed metaphor in these contrary motions, but as actor the outcome is hard-won parity.
Review by Alan Franks
Co-produced by the RSC in partnership with Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre, Kunene and the King is written by South African actor, activist and playwright John Kani and directed by Janice Honeyman.
This two-hander features John Kani as Lunga Kunene alongside South African actor and RSC Honorary Associate Artist Antony Sher who plays Jack Morris.
Kunene and the King follows the story of Jack Morris, a terminally ill sixty-five-year-old white actor living a relatively comfortable life in the suburbs of Johannesburg, and Lunga Kunene, a sixty-nine-year-old black retired male nurse. Having suffered innumerable losses during apartheid, Lunga must learn to deal with the tension that more than fifty years of apartheid has created whilst Jack’s health rapidly deteriorates.
Kunene and the King has been designed by Birrie Le Roux, with lighting by Mannie Manim, music by Neo Muyanga and sound by Jonathan Ruddick.
Kunene And The King
Ambassadors Theatre, London