REVIEW: Kunene and the King, RSC

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John Kani and Tony Sher Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC

Who was the greatest storyteller that ever lived? Shakespeare would be the obvious ready response. But after seeing Kunene and the King I’m happy to believe the answer to that question might not be a 455-year-old white man.

John Kani has written the play and this is its debut before it heads to The Fugard Theatre, Cape Town.

What this play does so brilliantly and cleverly is to weave Shakespeare’s King Lear through the tale of two South Africans – Jack Morris, a dying white actor hoping to take a last shot at Lear, and his carer, Lunga Kunene, a male nurse.

You want a masterclass in acting? Go and see Antony Sher and John Kani tackle these roles with total believability, vulnerability and champion comic timing. Jack clings on to past glories, and doesn’t realise quite how racist he is. Kunene is ostensibly a peacemaker who doesn’t realise how angry he is. And so the tension mounts… as director Janice Honeyman guides the action with a pace that never once falters.

Clearly the characters are ciphers for the opposing sides of apartheid, but the cleverness of the play, and its tremendously witty dialogue, means that it feels mostly like a domestic drama. It’s profound and brilliant, political without being preachy and a history lesson that never bores only enthrals.

So Sher as Jack as Lear is on a journey, mostly of the soul but also of the body, irrevocably towards death. The infamous Lear storm scene marks a halfway point – here brilliantly suggested by song and mime of the only other performer, singer Lungiswa Plaatjies, pictured,  who performs from the gods. Her South African folk music is gorgeous, soulful and electrifying, and gives the drama onstage spiritual clout.

After travelling through a storm – by taxi bus – Jack seeks out Lunga at his Soweto home. Jack has never been in the Township before, and like Lear post-heath experiences a period of realisation and sees things clearly. It is very moving – I can’t recall laughing and crying in the theatre quite so much as watching this.

The bit that raised the biggest laughs on opening night is where Jack is recalling the difficulties of acting, of remembering the lines and the temptation to shout out your shopping list… Finally he shares: “99.9% of Shakespeare performances end with a sense of failure. It’s such an unequal match – his talent and yours – no contest, really.” There’s something delightfully reminiscent here of Shakespeare’s own musings on acting within his plays.

Early in the play Jack explains the plot of King Lear to Lunga – the latter asks awkward questions: why not disinherit the horrible daughters, make some male heirs and trust his ancestors? An increasingly riled Jack stops him with a holler: “The English have no ancestors!” Before sulkily firing back: “This is Shakespeare’s story, not one of your little folk tales, sitting round the fire in the kraal.”

And there’s the nub.

John Kani, as he told me in an interview recently, is descended from great storytellers. He had three grandmothers who were all magical tellers of stories – they sound like the Three Muses – and not necessarily literate, the stories are told rather than written down. Listening/watching Kunene and the King is to consider other perspectives, other lives.

So yeah, Shakespeare’s a genius, but the best? We will never know.