THEATRE, CAPE TOWN: Kunene & The King, The Fugard Theatre, Cape Town, until May 25, 2019.

REVIEW: Kunene & The King

⭐ ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Performers: John Kani, Antony Sher.

On stage musician: Lungiswa Plaatjies

Playwright: John Kani

Director: Janice Honeyman

Lighting: Mannie Manim

Design: Birrie Le Roux

Composer: Neo Muyanga

Assistant Director: Nel Crouch

Sound Design re-created for The Fugard Theatre: David Classen

For the extensive list of creatives involved, in the UK and in South Africa, see programme – received when purchasing ticket.

Brilliant! Astounding! Kunene & The King at The Fugard is breathtaking theatre. Rapturous standing ovation. We knew that we had just watched a very special play – on all levels – writing, performance, directing, staging.

John Kani and Antony Sher, directed by Janice Honeyman, conjure up theatrical magic on stage. This production premiered at the end of March (2019), at The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The season at The Fugard Theatre is the SA premiere. In the UK, the production garnered mostly five star glowing reviews. I give it five star plus.

It’s a play about two aging men who face off against their fears and demons. It is funny – laugh-out-aloud; at times heart breaking, sad; rivetingly emotional and yet it entertains as one is pulled into the drama. At 100 minutes of running time, there are no lag moments.

Kani plays Lunga Kunene, a nurse who is caring for Jack Morris, an actor (Sher). Lunga has been sent by the nursing agency to care for Jack in his home in Johannesburg. Jack has cancer and checked himself out of hospital. “King” in the title refers to the fact that Jack is a classically inclined actor.  Jack’s ambition is to travel to Cape Town to play King Lear. Sod the fact that he is ill, he soldiers on learning his lines; hoping “to get better”.  Jack is alone. His ex-wife is out of the picture and he doesn’t have much contact with his son. Lunga’s back story is that when he was young he began his studies to become a doctor. His studies were derailed by protest actions. His career aspirations were scuppered by “The Struggle”. He has also lost contact with his own child. These men are thrown together.

The bumph around the play is that two older people are talking about and reflecting about 25 years of democracy. That is correct but this is not a TED Talk that we are watching. Kani as playwright has woven a mesmeric text which goes beyond discourse or sermon and has conjured up two compelling characters who draw us into their journey. Lunga and Jack are poles apart in terms of upbringing. They grew up in Apartheid South Africa but even with so-called freedom, Lunga is cleaning up after his patient who soils himself. The master-servant relationship endures in The New South Africa.

Throughout the play, Jack reminds him that he (Jack) is paying Lunga. The truth is that Lunga is paying – long after Apartheid was dissolved. It is powerful motif throughout the play. We are all paying. Those of us who grew up during Apartheid, should be aware of that and Kunene &The King drives that home – but subtly and with love. Core to John Kani’s theatre making is nation building and conciliation. He has told me this before and did so in an interview now for Kunene and the King – that that is his aim. He does not want to alienate audiences. He wants to bring people together.  In this play, we don’t get a lecture. We don’t feel chastised. The characters speak through who they are and we are pulled into their personal struggle to find redemption as the smell of mortality lingers.

The commonality is that Lunga and Jack share a love of Shakespeare and that is woven into the narrative as these two men meditate on The Bard. Antony Sher – as one of the leading Shakespearian actors of our times – delivers a knock-out performance– staggering and spluttering as an ill man and then the next moment, as thespian enunciating pitch perfect lines from King Lear. Kani is the unfailingly avuncular professional who is there to prop him up and then he too morphs into Bardian mode – with dazzling renditions of Julius Caesar in isiXhosa. Both their performances are marked by consummate artistry that goes with being veteran actors. Beyond the craft, is the layering of emotions, contradictions, conflicts, un-ease that they bring to their characters.

For me, at the nub of the play is fear. There is fear of dying; fear of being alone and dying alone; fear of The Other (Jack Morris is wary of a Black man living in his home); fear of facing up to the past and how it intersects with the present. Kani is 75 and he stabs at everything in this play. Nothing is sacrosanct. He touches on everything from Xenophobia, black on black violence, corruption, thankless children (who don’t care about their elderly parents). The wounded ruptured New South Africa gets a lashing but it is approached with love and respect.

Jack Morris is a smarmy character. He is so called liberal white. He is an actor who postures at being enlightened but back at home he keeps an enamel mug for the person who cleans his house. Lunga is presented as the ideal evocation of the Rainbow Nation – the man who is able to transcend his hate and disillusionment and be a professional to care for his patient. He is warm and generous and deflects Jack’s racism – and then – well you will see- how Kani dissects that ideal. But ultimately, we are left with the striving to “see” each other; knowing each other. That is the only way forward and that comes across profoundly in this play. The ending is brilliant. It is at once hopeful – that we can transcend our demons and at once chillingly real – that things have not changed in South Africa and for the most part Black people are paying the bulk of the bill.

Kunene & The King is on at The Fugard Theatre, until May 25, Tuesday to Saturdays at 8pm with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are R190-R340. Book through The Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554 or at