Being granted the opportunity to review a play penned and starring a theatre legend of John Kani's calibre is both a privilege and a daunting task. I write this review with great deference, while reflecting my experience with honesty. Here then my thoughts on Kunene and the King onstage at the Fugard Theatre, having transferred from the Royal Shakespeare Company's Swan Theatre where it premiered in March 2019.
Kunene and the King takes audiences to a setting 25 years after our Rainbow Nation’s dawn of democracy. Here we meet two men with different perspectives and backgrounds. The first encounter is with a privileged white actor called Jack Morris (Antony Sher). He has a strong ego and even stronger opinions —neither necessarily justified. He has been diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer, is in need of a live-in nurse, and awaits the arrival of such. Enter Lunga Kunene (John Kani), a black man, and clearly (according to Jack) there without invitation. It soon becomes apparent (to Jack’s shock) that Lunga is indeed Sister Kunene tasked to take care of him. Lunga reveals himself a very knowledgeable nurse from Soweto who was unjustly robbed of the opportunity to become a doctor during apartheid. Both Jack and Lunga are thrust into a situation where they're confronted with their personal and very distinct pasts in their shared present.
Even though Jack is terminal, he is convinced he will be able to play the role of King Lear in a soon to be staged production, while Lunga agrees (under not-always-pleasant and sometimes outright hostile circumstances) to take care of an ill-mannered Jack until he is ‘better’. The series of conversations that ensue place Jack and Lunga on the path to understanding and reconciliation.
The text is thought-provoking, with a touch of the personal, as Kani draws from his own experiences. He incorporates multi-lingual elements of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Julius Caesar to make strong political and theatrical statements relating to the unifying and destructive power of language and the perspectives fuelled by prejudice, fear, and misunderstanding of ‘the other’.
Kani’s performance throughout is nuanced and a dramatic joy to behold. He demands and deserves your attention from the first words he utters as the dignified and compassionate Lunga. Sher makes a very interesting choice with his arrogant and predominantly offensive character Jack, giving him a tone and presence that falls as strangely on the ear as the first time one hears Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. He impressively maintains this and showcases the irrationality and fear that inform Jack's selfish, misguided, and unjustified views.
The play explores themes of race, respect, family, culture, class, humanity, and politics within the bigger context of mortality and the complexities of our divided society. The emotive tone and setting of Lunga and Jack's relationship, even quasi-friendship, unfolds with equal parts grim and ironic humour and shocked and saddened dramatic intensity.
The tension and the journey shared by the characters reminds one of a similarly themed acclaimed play, London Road. Much like London Road, Kunene and the King’s text presents the opportunity for an in-depth exploration of personal catharsis. It reaffirms the importance of viewing the past from the perspective of people (specifically their interactions and reality), rather than simply linking it to historical references. It highlights the humanity at play when prejudices are exposed.
Unfortunately, for me, the direction of Kunene and the King did not fully allow crucial text-driven moments to breathe for the character-development and conflict-escalation to reflect reconciliation as an earned ending: It reflected a sense of tolerance, but did not fully evolve to the degree of acceptance that the end appears to call for. As a whole, the manner in which the narrative is presented felt a bit one-dimensional and falls short of its attempt to showcase the heart of it all, though the potential and the talent are clearly visible.
I enjoyed seeing theatre legends, Kani and Sher, delve into the vibrant text with such vigour. My reservations and degree of disappointment resides in the fact that I was expecting more in terms of depth. I wish the direction allowed Kani and Sher to play more to the nuances vibrating underneath the surface of their relationship, which admittedly there are small samplings of at short intervals. Sometimes this feeling of being left underwhelmed is a response to the heightened excitement that builds with such a highly anticipated play; perhaps this is the case here.
Kunene and the King, presented by the Fugard Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, is a good night out at the theatre and an opportunity to experience a poignant and stimulating play performed with heart and commitment. It may just leave you wanting more.
You can book online at www.thefugard.com to see it before the run ends on 25 May 2019.