‘Kunene and the King’: Kani and Sher crackle and spark
Theatre icons light up the stage with complex humanity
Energy crackles like lightning between theatre icons John Kani and Antony Sher, lighting up the stage, when their characters in Kunene and the King recite lines from Julius Caesar in Xhosa and English respectively, united by their love of Shakepeare. Divided by much else.
And a storm signals the climax of Kani’s deftly written script, about African male nurse Lunga Kunene caring for dying actor Jack Morris, not unlike the storm in King Lear when the old man’s inner tempest is mirrored by the elements.
In the terminal stages of liver cancer, Morris is rehearsing to play King Lear as his swansong – a role Sher knows intimately, having played King Lear twice for the Royal Shakespeare Company – when Kunene arrives to look after him.
Expecting a blonde nurse with blue eyes, Morris is unhappy to see Kunene, and is a rude and recalcitrant patient at best. Sher’s portrayal of him is immaculate. At worst, Morris is a racist relic of apartheid, not wanting Kunene to sleep in the house, throwing the refrain of “you people” at his forthright and dignified nurse, and once also a soiled nappy.
Kunene stands up to this abuse in a brilliant performance which challenges the white prejudices that are still prevalent 25 years after SA’s first democratic elections.
Despite their clashing perspectives – Morris having benefited from white privilege while apartheid has destroyed Kunene’s dreams – the men can relate over common experiences such as their alienation from their children and their growing sense of mortality.
Morris shares with Kunene his fears, including going “dry” on stage, forgetting his lines or getting them wrong. His vulnerability is piercing and that’s how the faltering friendship between them begins, with Kunene helping Morris rehearse his lines.
Kunene is a heartfelt caregiver who extends himself far beyond his professional duties, even being persuaded to take publicity shots of the wan Morris. The extraordinary range of emotions that accompany this scene made the audience laugh and cry.
Kunene and the King has the power to do that, composed of complex layers about personality, politics and stereotypes which unravel inexorably to reveal the forces that tear apart SA and the humanity that unifies it.
• Showing now at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, Kunene and the King, presented by Eric Abraham, is a Royal Shakespeare Company and Fugard Theatre Production directed by Janice Honeyman.