Picture: Irene Menell

Thick into rehearsals, Sanda Shandu and Andile Gumbi, who plays the heavyweight boxer Ezekiel Dlamini, aka King Kong, may be arch-enemies on stage, but sitting on bar stools at the Fugard foyer after a full day of rehearsals, they laugh and heap praise on each others’ interpretation of their roles.

Shandu says that in some ways he’s quite daunted to be playing the role of one of the leads in such an iconic drama. “It’s really awesome when one thinks of the restaging of this play. But the latest production shows that while we are honouring it, we are doing it in a different way; we are approaching the story on a different level.”

Shandu admits that the character he plays “creeps out of dark corners, and once you're on his bad side, you don’t want to see it”.

A relative newcomer to the Mother City, Shandu moved here in 2010 and, while he graduated in economics and organisational psychology, he maintained a passion for theatre, and after working as a waiter at the Stardust Theatrical Dining Restaurant, landed his first professional role in David Kramer’s Orpheus in Africa. He has just come off the set of the American film The Kissing Booth.

Gumbi is a well-known face in the TV series Isibaya and for his role as Simba in The Lion King, which also toured London’s West End.

Both agree that producer Eric Abrahams's latest version of King Kong, the tale of a down-at-heel boxer, directed by Jonathan Munby, tells the tragic story from a “different depth”.

“It kind of shows what your actions might lead to - a sort of cautionary tale,” says Gumbi.

He adds: “It’s about taking responsibility, and as it's being launched at the beginning of August - Women’s Month - it puts forward a strong message about respecting women; something the legendary boxer did not do.”

Speaking of his role as the boxer, Gumbi says his take on the man Zakes, or Ezekiel, is portraying a man who was denied his childhood.

“But what I am trying to show is the soft side of the man - when he’s angry, he’s a brute, but there’s another side to him. "Tragically, the decisions he made led him in a wrong direction, and it’s almost as if every time he tries to do something right it goes wrong for him.”

Gumbi says that to portray his role as a boxer accurately and authentically he was given intensive training, and there’s also a stunt co-ordinator “so that we don’t look like actors just going through the paces”. To which Shandu responds: “I just wield a knife, but in the show, often the boxing becomes a dance.”

Following in the footsteps of such a legendary production, are they nervous about opening night?

“Yes we are are,” laughs Gumbi. “There are people alive who saw the former production, and we have big shoes to fill. But it’s a huge honour to be working with people who are so committed. We are stripping ourselves bare to the audience, and one of the great things is how much we learn from each other,” he says.

Shandu agrees: “There are techniques that you may not have yet applied that you can pick up from other actors. From Andile one can see those soft, delicate moments, and we can use each other’s performances to govern our own roles.”

Ironically, they add, there is only one scene where the two are really together, although the two are in love with the same woman - Joyce (played by Nondumiso Tembe) - so there’s a love triangle, adds Shandu.

“It evokes so many emotions and drives the whole story. But as the saying goes, the hero is only as good as his own enemy,” he says.

The pair commend what they term the “incredible cohesion” in the cast. “We really work like a chain; we are always intertwined and move as one vessel,” says Gumbi. “It’s amazing how seamlessly we work - and this has been a totally wonderful opportunity.”

* King Kong runs at the Fugard Theatre from August 2 until September 2 and at the Mandela Theatre in Joburg from September 2 until October 8.