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Kunene And The King - RSC Review

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by Alison Brinkworth (subscribe)
Freelance journalist in Birmingham with a passion for the dynamic theatre, art, food and fashion scene in Britain's 'Second City'.
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Acting greats in South Africa themed play
South African playwright and actor Dr John Kani has a long and fascinating history that is entwined with the apartheid, Shakespeare and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). His latest play takes stock of all these in a gentle yet impactful piece.

Kunene and the king, Antony Sher, John Kani, rsc, comedy
Two great actors come together of John Kani and Antony Sher


For someone who was a child in multicultural Britain when the apartheid ended in South Africa, it seems so baffling that a country could have possibly enforced and lived through such inhumane race-dividing rules that suppressed non-whites from any real opportunity.

It's now 25 years since South Africa abandoned apartheid and the journey that country is taking is still a tumultuous route. Writer and activist Kani hasn't shied away from many uncomfortable truths on both sides as he marks that anniversary with play Kunene and The King.

The production makes for quite an education on the history and soul of South Africa, but unexpectedly, also on King Lear and the emotional impact of living with terminal cancer.

The RSC, which has had a long-standing relationship with Kani for decades, teamed up with Cape Town's Fugard Theatre to produce Kunene and the King. It is showing at The Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon until 23 April before heading to South Africa for performances at The Fugard.

It's a thoughtful, multi-layered piece of intelligent theatre - a two-hander with RSC favourite Antony Sher alongside Kani through an uninterrupted 1 hour 45 minutes performance.

I say two-hander, but the production benefits in atmosphere from singer and musician Lungiswa Plaatjies, who plays live at interludes throughout the performance to bring a very distinctive South African ambience to the proceedings.

Kunene and the king, Antony Sher, John Kani, rsc, comedy
John Kani writes and stars in the play


Set in current times, the plot follows an uneasy friendship between dying white actor Jack Morris (Sher), who has been cast as King Lear, and his African home-care nurse Lunga Kunene (Kani), who looks after him and also helps the patient learn his lines. Conversation naturally turns to their country and their very different experiences and views of the past 50 years.

The story of King Lear weaves through the play as scenes the actor is learning have striking correlations to what is happening in real life. Along with tying in Lear's themes of self-awareness and arrogance, there's a beautifully subtle symmetry in the drama, particularly with the storm scene.

Despite playing an alcoholic with many flaws, Sher manages that twinkle of likeability he is so good at. His South African accent does waiver throughout, but he brings a passionate and emotional performance to stage. His portrayal of living with cancer is spot on and the moment he breaks down in tears is terribly moving.

Kani looks and feels completely natural as the tolerant nurse, but this is a role he has penned, and there is likely to have been some aspects of biography in many of his words.

While it's often gently warm and funny as the pair find common ground, there's also an undercurrent of tension that continues to build until it finally overflows with stark, difficult truths in a powerful final scene.

Kunene and the king, Antony Sher, John Kani, rsc, comedy
South African themes in Kunene and the King


It's clear that this play has been written by someone whose heart and soul is woven with South Africa as it is so acutely descriptive and knowledgeable about the country's culture and past - from the Soweto student protest shootings and revenge rapes to more current issues of nonsensical 'child sex' cures for AIDS and continuing violent crime.

Award-winning Kani has described "memory" as his "worst enemy these days", but that's no wonder when you hear that he only got to vote for the first time when he was 51-years-old.

He has lived through protests and police arrest when he became the first black actor to play the role of Othello in South Africa in 1987 in a production by Janet Suzman; a show that received bomb threats and walk-outs over his kiss with white actress Joanna Weinberg playing Desdemona.

That is only part of Kani's long relationship with Shakespeare's texts, which add more meaning to the background that paved the way to this new play. While Kani went on to perform many times for the RSC, Shakespeare has his own links with South Africa as it was a smuggled copy of the bard's Complete Works that helped Nelson Mandela and fellow political prisoners on Robben Island get through their imprisonment.

It's exciting to experience such new, heartfelt, thought-provoking and challenging theatre as Kani's latest work.

Kunene and The King fascinates as much as it educates. It's enthralling, often funny and deeply moving - and is already one of my highlights of the year. Don't miss out!

RATING:

The work of the RSC Literary Department is supported by The Drue and H J Heinz II Charitable Trust. After the closing performance at the Swan Theatre on April 23, Kunene and The King is performed in South Africa at Fugard Theatre in Cape Town.
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Why? See two great actors in a poignant comedy on South Africa
When: Until April 23
Phone: 01789 331111
Where: Swan Theatre, Waterside, Stratford upon Avon
Cost: 5 - 75
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