His presence permeates every aspect of John Kani’s play, Kunene and the King, currently on at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town. He is implied in the dramatic tension; he is discussed in the dialogue. He is even physically present, as a bust sometimes adorned by a Kaizer Chiefs scarf overlooking the tense action from various vantage points on stage.
But he is most alive in the precise and intentional diction throughout Kunene and the King, illustrating and undercutting the inherent tension in the relationship between Sir Anthony Sher’s Jack Morris, an aged but famous actor, and his new caretaker Lunga Kunene (Kani), assigned to look after him following his being diagnosed with terminal liver cancer.
As playwright, John Kani uses the lens of Shakespeare’s King Lear to examine the relationship that develops between Morris and Kunene. As Kani remarks in his author’s note, the interplay between the two “examines the very foundation upon which our democracy is built.” The two go back and forth on a range of issues affecting democratic South Africa, comparing viewpoints on culpability, causes and respect, often resulting in explosive confrontation. These bouts, however, would be in danger of falling into rote, retreaded exchanges without the exceptional talent and skill of the two actors. Their command of nuance, movement, and especially Shakespeare illuminate starkly the metaphors for modern South Africa that appear in King Lear. The rapport between the two is clear from the moment they first share the stage, making the relationship that develops believable despite their constant disagreements and needling of each other. The range of feeling and emotion that envelops the audience throughout the play is truly remarkable, and a reminder that it is a privilege to be able to watch these two distinguished, decorated, and venerated actors on stage at all, never mind performing together.
Janice Honeyman’s direction keeps the elderly characters moving about the stage in effective ways, shuffling them from chair to floor, and finding new hiding spots for Jack’s precious gin, to amusing effect. In a two-hander such as this, one often sees the characters squaring up for a majority of the action. Impressively, Honeyman avoids that scenario for large swaths of the play, using it to underscore dramatic showdowns. Her experience and class shine through in a wonderful sequence in which Morris performs as Lear, a totally showstopping moment.
In fact, every aspect of the production was simply fantastic to behold, from the beautiful Fugard Theatre itself (a new TheatreZA favourite), to Lungiswa Plaatjies soulful and sonorous musical interludes. Birrie le Roux’s intricate and creative production design meant that every corner of the extensive set was used to maximum effect, revealing bits and pieces for the actors to turn to in every corner. Mannie Manim lends his usual assured brilliance to the lighting, memorably ending the play with a stunning tableau that is almost Biblical in its relief effect.
Kunene and the King represents so effectively the absolute rule of the past’s refusal to relinquish its hold on the present. The Royal Shakespeare Company and the Fugard Theatre are to be commended on giving South African audiences the opportunity to see this important and necessary show, the impact of which will be seen and felt for many years to come.
Jo’burg, we sincerely hope you get the opportunity to see this incredibly pertinent piece of theatre. If you don’t, book your flights to Cape Town now – it closes on Saturday, 25 May.