Peter Ormerod reviews Kunene and the King, presented by the RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford
Let’s face it: this play would be worth seeing no matter how good it is. It feels like quite a privilege merely to be in the same room as John Kani, a towering figure in international theatre and a man whose activism against apartheid in South Africa remains an enduring testament to the life-changing power of the arts.
There is only one other actor in this play. But he happens to be Antony Sher, who was born in South Africa and has long been acclaimed as one of the foremost stage actors of his generation. It is difficult to recall a time when such a concentration of greatness has been seen at the RSC.
Kunene and the King is a new work by Kani. It is hard to imagine a play to which the identities of the actors are more integral, for their own lives are woven through it. Sher is Jack Morris, an experienced Shakespearean actor preparing to play King Lear, a role Sher himself performed at the RSC to great acclaim in 2017 and 2018. But Jack has cancer of the liver, and his ability to play the part is uncertain at best.
Kani is Sister Lunga Kunene, the nurse Jack pays to care for him in his home in present-day Johannesburg. The play is essentially about their relationship, which itself carries astonishing breadth and depth, but has layers of meaning too numerous and beautifully amorphous to count.
There is one obvious difference between the men: their colour. It is the source of hostility and suspicion, but also of curiosity. Even if race were he play’s only concern, it would be something of a triumph: the issue is explored with rare if unsurprising sophistication, subtlety and power. Each finds himself cast as the spokesman for ‘his people’, sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly. The whole work appears concerned with the tension between the individual and the collective, between who one is and what one represents, and to what extent the present should be beholden to the past.
This plays out in enjoyable bickering; despite the grim setting, there are laughs aplenty, much of the comedy arising from Jack’s efforts to hide his drinking from his nurse. There is also searing anger, profound sadness and an almost tangible love, to which neither would of course admit.
But it is what brings the two together which is most revealing. They share a love of Shakespeare: Sister Kunene talks of being taught a Xhosa version of Julius Caesar translated by W B Mdledle (in another parallel with real life, this was Kani’s own experience). One of the evening’s most radiantly enjoyable moments comes when the pair spar with lines from the play: Jack recites in English, followed by Lunga in Xhosa. They speak in awed tones of Stratford-upon-Avon; a bust of the Bard, a beloved possession of Jack, becomes a fixture in the home of Lunga.
There is little conventionally spectacular or sensational going on here; there is no daring staging or theatrical innovation. But that seems quite brave in itself: at one stage, Jack rails against the modish desire to make Shakespeare ‘relevant’, to enclose his works within a particular concept (or, rather, ‘Köncept’). This is too intelligent a piece to be so simplified.
Much credit is due too to the third performer, Lungiswa Plaatjies, whose singing between scenes veers between the tender and the brutal. And Janice Honeyman directs with an appealing deftness.
The play’s parallels with King Lear are explicit, and a line from Shakespeare’s great tragedy sparks one of the most profound moments of the evening. “Pray you now, forget and forgive,” recites Jack. To which Lunga replies: “Funny. Here in South Africa, it was the other way round. Forgive, but never forget.”
* Kunene and the King runs until April 23. Visit rsc.org.uk/kunene-and-the-king or call 01789 331111 to book.