Theatre Review

John Kani's 'Kunene and The King' feels like an old-school political play

The combination of three legends of the SA stage - John Kani, Antony Sher and Janice Honeyman - makes for bankable theatre, writes Mary Corrigall

12 May 2019 - 00:10 By Mary Corrigall

When John Kani writes and stars in a new play, you don't miss it. This is especially the case when this theatre great invites a couple of other SA theatre luminaries to join him on his new journey - Antony Sher as his co-star and Janice Honeyman to direct.
You could call Kunene & The King, which opened at the Fugard last week, bankable theatre. It also probably helps knowing, for those who revere western art centres, that the play premiered in the heart of Shakespeareland - in Stratford-upon-Avon in the UK.
Interest in the play is buoyed too by a string of favourable reviews and write-ups in all the good (foreign) papers - among others, The Guardian (UK) and The New York Times, in which Kani and Sher are referred to as "theatre royalty".
In truth Kunene & the King delivers handsomely in some respects. Kani and Sher are such legends that it is automatically a delight to see the duo tread the boards live, in front of you, paired again after almost a decade - in 2008 and 2009 they starred in The Tempest, incidentally also directed by Honeyman. The play too is what you expect it should be - a political play in the tradition of SA political theatre, though Kani delivers it with a softer, lighter touch.
Not that the premise of the play appears to be immediately political, given that it centres on a male nurse, Sister Kunene, played by Kani, who moves into the home of a terminally ill actor, Jack Morris (Sher), to take care of him. In a country such as ours where we have struggled to move beyond institutionalised racism, it is perhaps not an unproblematic, though depressing, assumption that racial friction is inevitable between white and black characters.
Of course, this plot line depends on the racist attitude of the white character, which surely these days is not always a given or perhaps the levels of prejudice varies depending on the age of the person, where they grew up, their level of education. As such the slice of SA's sociopolitical life that Kani serves up feels generationally defined - and rooted in forms of racism that most younger generations of white people would completely reject. Or is he showing white people what we rarely witness or deny?
As an old man - in his late 70s or so - Morris is meant to embody a generation of white people who regret that apartheid ended. As such, in the intimacy of his home, he can only place a black man as "a servant" and himself as "master" - the eponymous King. Kunene might be of the same generation but he isn't willing to accept these terms in the not-so-new SA.
As a carer in Morris's employ the lines might be blurred, yet Kunene defines them strongly - he won't sleep in a "maid's room" or drink tea from a tin mug.
The latter scenario drew horrified gasps from the audience, who were largely white and middle-aged.
Is it possible that Morris would impose these indignities on Kunene? Would an actor of his age - who you would assume would have through his profession been politically conscientised by struggle/protest theatre of the '60s, '70s and '80s - and shared the stage with black equals - such as the real life Sher does in this very play - cling to such abhorrent and socially unacceptable ideas? At the same time you know, and encounter people in your own family, who exhibit racist behaviour, despite democracy and the risk of being socially ostracised.
This is the white persona that Kani wishes to expose, challenge and ultimately transform.
Kani might exploit the racial, cultural and social lines dividing Kunene and Morris but he also revels in blurring them, establishing shared interests and experiences - absent progeny, old age, mortality - and most importantly their mutual affection for Shakespeare. Ironically, their discussion of cultural differences between them that Shakespeare's play King Lear, exposes allows a convivial bond between the black and white characters to be established.
The Royal Shakespeare Company co-funded this production so this link may have been essential, yet it is not a superfluous addition to satisfy a patron - it is plausibly relevant to a character who is an actor and is preparing to play King Lear.
The central themes in that play - death and dethronement, stepping down from a position of power - naturally resonate with Morris's character who, as a dying white racist man, symbolises the implosion of white supremacism in SA. Morris's "exit" is anything but graceful - he is angry, bitter and disgraced. His ambition to be "the king" - both in a literal and metaphorical sense - escapes him.
In the last scene, as Morris is close to death, it is clear that the fantasy of being the king or master is what has sustained him in life. It is a hunger he has inherited - from another culture, time and place - the roots of apartheid can be traced to British imperialism.
He assumes the "role" belongs to him yet it can only be attained or depends on a witness - in this last instance this falls to Kunene. In other words there is no "master" if "a servant" no longer exists. And perhaps this is what makes Morris's racist outlook more plausible; in facing his extinction he clings to a latent form of racism that seemingly affirms his superiority. It is all he has left.
Ultimately, Kani guides Kunene and the King towards a positive conclusion. Despite this and the light humour that runs throughout, it feels like an old-school political SA play. As such it relies on binary positions and delivers a very clear message, particularly to white people: stop moaning about the ways in which the new government hasn't brought about change when white attitudes haven't altered in the past 25 years either.
The age of the characters, however, means that the attitudes represented in it belong to the old guard, though certainly racism hasn't died out. It is uncomfortable for white people to see this white racist relic paraded on stage stripped of his (false) civilities.
Sher is convincing in this role. Kani was right to write from this place; his generational position is the only authentic place for him as a playwright to inhabit present SA. In this way his new play rings true, not only in its words but in the manner these theatre legends carry, weigh and deliver them.
• ' Kunene and the King' shows at The Fugard in Cape Town until May 25...

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