New SA is beyond teething problems, the teeth are falling out, says John Kani

Telford Vice spoke to the three theatrical legends — John Kani, Antony Sher and Janice Honeyman — behind a new play, 'Kunene and the King', which reveals a lot about post-apartheid SA

12 May 2019 - 00:00 By Telford Vice
John Kani and Antony Sher in 'Kunene and the King' at the Fugard Theatre.
John Kani and Antony Sher in 'Kunene and the King' at the Fugard Theatre.
Image: Claude Barnardo

The trouble with asking John Kani questions is that he will answer them. And keep answering them; more arrestingly, intelligently and quotably with every sentence. He steers the conversation from the highway into the weeds and the bundu beyond, then onto a quiet street, then back to the fast lane, all in a few paragraphs. 

Kani vibrates at an uncommon output frequency. His new play, Kunene and the King, which he wrote and in which he co-stars alongside Antony Sher, ended its opening run at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 23. The next day Kani was leaving for New York to receive an award. From there he was off to Cape Town, where he, Sher and director Janice Honeyman are staging Kunene at the Fugard.

He's also due on a film set soon, and after that there are invitations to take the play to London and New York.

Kani is 75, which he likes to point out is far from old, and is incapable of sitting still. "If I don't know what's following when I finish something I develop a rash and a restlessness, to the point that my family says, 'Go do something, even if it's an advert. Go! We can't deal with you.' "

For now, Kunene and the King is keeping him out of his family's hair. The plot pits two South African characters of a certain age against each other - prejudices, personal experiences, and all. One, a white actor preparing to play King Lear, discovers he has liver cancer. The other is his black caregiver.

In Kani's words, the character played by Sher "assumes the nurse who's going to live with him is blonde with blue eyes and big tits - and then he finds out it's a black man".

Sher has indeed played Lear; at 69 he is the grand duke of the British stage. In November 2017 a child in India asked Prince Charles during a school visit who his favourite actor was - perhaps expecting him to say Shah Rukh Khan. Instead, the royal reply was: "Gracious me! When I think about it there are so many of them. There is a very good actor called Sir Antony Sher who is a brilliant Shakespearean actor and everything else."

So, do we call him Sir, a title bestowed in 2000? A drawled chuckle: "Well, only officially."

Cape Town-born Sher moved to England in 1968 and has officially been British since 1979. But just as Kani's voice, despite years of internationalisation, still resonates with Eastern Cape dust, so Sher's voice brims with the breeze of the Sea Point promenade.

Being back in SA is, "on an emotional and spiritual level, very powerful", Sher said, his delivery as slow as the traffic oozing from Camps Bay on a Sunday afternoon.

"I've lived in the UK for 51 years; much longer than I lived here. Yet I only have to step off the plane at Cape Town airport and I feel a rush of familiar sensations to do with the smells and the nature of the light, the colours of things, that is just irresistible. It's in my blood, my DNA. There's something very rewarding and satisfying about coming back."

WATCH | Antony Sher, John Kani and Janice Honeyman explain how their new play, 'Kunene and the King', was developed.

Herding personalities as contrasting as Kani and Sher on the same stage is a challenge, even if they are firm friends. But Honeyman, a Capetonian transplanted to Joburg, has directed each of them five times.

She put up with both in The Tempest in 2008, when Sher played Prospero and Kani Caliban in a production that went from the Baxter in Cape Town to Stratford and five other venues in England.

"We trust each other," Honeyman said. "It's been fascinating weaving very different people into a harmonious whole."

The themes of the play echo this journey. "The dynamic of the play is one of conflict moving towards harmony," Honeyman said, but taking the production from one hemisphere to the other, and across cultures, was not without complications.

For instance, the "stoep" polish spoken of on the Fugard's stage was "floor" polish in Stratford.

Not all differences were as easily resolved. "English audiences are fascinated by the process of dismantling apartheid and getting to 25 years of democracy," Honeyman said. "South Africans have lived through it, and that puts pressure on us."

For Kani, history and culture are always about the individual. "I see someone standing at a bus stop, in the street or in front of their house, and I want to do a brain operation and listen to their inner thoughts unadulterated by the environment they're in.

"We have over 58-million people in SA and they want to be part of a postcard with a picture of democracy. But people have different definitions and understandings of that democracy."

He is not without hope for harmony in SA.

"We have been able to hold the country together, mounted on the pillars of our democracy and ubuntu drawn from the Freedom Charter of 1955. And we have not veered away from that. We have not become a dictatorship or a failed state, or - like the Americans do sometimes - shut down the government.

"This is a project in progress. I'd give us a B, if I had to grade us. But the corruption! These aren't teething problems. The teeth are falling out and we want to know what the hell is going on."

Other things are also worrying Kani.

"I'm disturbed by this relaxed, lackadaisical attitude; almost a non-awareness. We're getting to a point where millennials are questioning our role in negotiations to end apartheid.

"We're even faced with very reckless utterances that maybe we sold out and didn't negotiate a good deal, and that maybe Mandela wasn't the leader we thought he was. We can't allow history to say we did this badly. Don't let the next generation inherit the confusion."

The play, in this case, is the thing. Kunene and the King, in its discomfiting evisceration of 25 years of democracy, cuts through a lot of the confusion.

• 'Kunene and the King' is at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town until May 25. 

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