REVIEW: ‘Kunene and the King’, Swan Theatre, RSC

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Kunene and the King‘, Swan Theatre, RSC

  South Africa, 2019.

  White South African actor Jack Morris is in the final stage of liver cancer when African nurse Lunga Kunene is appointed his live-in carer. What follows is a searing portrait of politics, prejudice, inequality and mortality in this deft two-hander which explores the legacy of the apartheid, as together, these two men reflect on a quarter century of change.

  Directed by Janice Honeyman, the production hones in on the tender relationship of these two men, aided by Birrie le Roux’s intimate stage design. Mannie Manim’s exquisitely evocative lighting design providing the backdrop for the set is awash with vibrant colour, a palette for the infinite emotions experienced by humanity. Neo Muyanga’s exciting compositions are performed live by Lungiswa Plaatjies, whose impressive vocals simultaneously excite and haunt, at one point mimicking the sound of thunder in a colossal downpour.

John Kani (Kunene) and Antony Sher (Jack) in Kunene and the King. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

  Despite his recent diagnosis, renowned classical actor Jack is preparing to play the title role in William Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ at the end of the year. Kunene helps him to learn his lines, and in return, opens Jack’s eyes to his own background, telling of the struggles he faced, and continues to face, post-apartheid.

  With quotes from the famous Shakespeare play permeating this one, we see a likeness in these two cutting considerations of national division, humanity, and death.

  Antony Sher’s Jack Morris, in the clutches of stage 4 liver cancer, is all too aware of his own mortality. Physically frail, plagued by chronic pain, he shuffles around the stage in tartan slippers. An alcoholic, with several nifty hiding places for his numerous bottles of gin, he drinks to cope with the constancy of his unbearable pain, and in so doing, damages his liver further. For him, gin is both ‘poison and painkiller’.

Antony Sher (Jack) in Kunene and the King. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

  However, despite the intensifying weakness of his body, there exists within him a strength, a determination, a drive – one that propels him towards setting the goal of playing Lear. Sher skilfully displays an endearing, often comic stubbornness, which enables him to look the inevitability of his imminent passing head on. At times, however, there are glimmers of sensitivity, vulnerability, and immense fragility in his performance, hugely affecting and powerfully poignant.

  Writer of the play John Kani stars as African carer Lunga Kunene, a man whose fierce dignity masquerades the emotional scars inflicted by the apartheid, the effects of which continue to haunt him. An experienced nurse, Kunene becomes Jack’s live-in carer, and certainly lives up to the role. Telling us of his struggles growing up and living during the apartheid, he does not allow racism and inequality to stand, and questions why black people must always use the title of a person as opposed to simply their name, corrects Jack each time refers to his maid, rather than his helper, and demands that Jack treats him with respect when he visits him in his own home.

John Kani (Kunene) in Kunene and the King. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

  Kunene importantly argues the point that, whilst Jack may accuse him of the actions of another, he is not the spokesperson for his race. He maintains his individuality, and separates himself from being labelled, simply as a collective. He knows that his actions and behaviours are governed by him and him alone, and that the actions of others in no way reflect his own views – an important point to remember in today’s socio-political climate, where group of people, entire races, even, continue to be scapegoated for those acting alone.

  Despite the very different backgrounds of these two men, culturally, politically, socially and economically, Jack and Kunene are, in many ways, very similar. It is the power of the language of Shakespeare that ultimately brings them closer together, and when reciting speeches they are, in these moments, with these lines, shown to be what they are – equals. Crackling with humour and irascibility, they share anger over their past, frustrations at their present, and a longing of betterment for their future – Kunene, for a better life, Jack, for a better death.

John Kani (Kunene) and Antony Sher (Jack) in Kunene and the King. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

  There are those who dispute the authorship of Shakespeare’s works, on the basis that he was not a well-educated man. As Kani’s Kunene points out here, however, ‘education has got nothing to do with it’. Shakespeare so perfectly captures the very fabric of the human condition in his writing, and an understanding of such is something no one can be taught.

  ‘Kunene and the King’, powerful in the extreme, offers a piercing look at the human condition. By way of a patient-carer relationship, a power-play between two men, the unparalleled language of Shakespeare becomes a leveller, which brings them closer together, a means of reconciliation, in which they are united by a shared understanding of humanity. 

  The human condition is universal and, regardless of race, background, education, etc, all are united by their humanity. A humanity alive in the words of Shakespeare, this is a language that all understand. And all experience. 

  When reciting Marc Antony’s funeral speech from ‘Julius Caesar’ – Jack in English, and Kunene is his native language – we see the power of such words in reaching people on a universal scale.

John Kani (Kunene) and Antony Sher (Jack) in Kunene and the King. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

  Such language becomes a vicious motivator for Jack, compelling him to return to the stage. There is a touching ferocity venturing beyond passion in the way these actors – Sher and Kani – speak of Shakespeare and his works, and recite his lines. Jack remarks that it is no longer enough that Shakespeare is performed well, but has to be made relevant. While it is true that theatre companies today are more frequently opting for modern retellings, the truth is that the language of Shakespeare, a universal language, has always been relevant, and will always continue to be so, regardless of production design. In this sense, this production basks in an urgent sense of ‘nowness’ as, with advancing years bearing future generations away from the apartheid, it’s effects, past, present, and future, will continue to damage.

  ‘Kunene and the King’ radiates with dignity in a striking exploration of injustice and inequality, of humanity and mortality, and of the ability of language as a tool for achieving unity and reconciliation.

  This is a play in touch with human nature.

John Kani (Kunene) and Antony Sher (Jack) in Kunene and the King. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

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