John Kani and Sir Antony Sher will perform in Kunene and the King.
Cape Town - One of this year’s most anticipated theatre shows is John Kani’s new play, Kunene and the King, starring South African-born actor Sir Antony Sher and directed by Janice Honeyman.

After premiering at The Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, on Thursday, the play will then have its SA premiere at The Fugard Theatre, from April 30.

Beyond the coming together of three theatrical luminaries - Kani, Sher and Honeyman - in writing this play, Kani is marking 25 years of democracy in SA, through the narrative which is set in Johannesburg and in Soweto.

Kani plays Lunga Kunene, a nurse who is caring for Jack Morris, an actor, played by Sher. “King” in the title refers to the fact that the actor is a Shakespearean actor. His ambition is to play King Lear. Sher: “These two older people - in their late 60s or early 70s are talking about and reflecting about 25 years of democracy and sometimes fighting about it.

The actor is so-called liberal but he is uncomfortable with a black man living in his house. But, he needs Kunene. Kunene realises who he is dealing with - a particular type of liberal white man who is not so liberal - but his job is to look after him. There is a lot of conflict.”

The King character is not an evocation of Sher. Jack Morris isn’t an actor who went into exile like Sher did (in 1968). However, Kani was writing with Sher in mind and aspects of Sher’s thespian life have become embedded in the text. Kani as writer gazes at the matrix of Shakespeare in Africa.

Through Kunene and the King’s gaze, we get a sense of the perspectives, experiencing Shakespeare in a vastly different landscape to now. “They have both experienced apartheid SA - they have known the old and new SA.”

The genesis of the play goes back to 2009 when Sher, Kani and Honeyman were working together on The Tempest - the co-production between the RSC and The Baxter Theatre.

“On the Tempest UK tour, John asked if we could have a cup of coffee. He said that he had a vague idea of writing a play which would feature the two of us.

“He asked if I was interested in the potential of it. I didn’t think anything more and forgot about it. Then at the beginning of 2018 - he contacted me. John said - ‘I don’t know if you remember that conversation. I have written a play. Would you like to look at it?’

“I loved it, I found it moving, funny and fascinating. I was very touched by it... He said give my regards to Greg (Doran).”

Doran is Sher’s partner and is the artistic director of the RSC. “I said to John, I did more than that, I gave him the script to Greg to read.” Doran was also bowled over and took it to the RSC for consideration.

The RSC came on board with The Fugard Theatre. “The RSC had the space and were able to offer development opportunities.”

“The play deals with darkness and politics - but there is terrific humour - lots of candour. It’s very funny. It’s a very human play. John has created a play about two human beings - their faults and weaknesses - very rounded - funny and witty.”

* Kunene and the King will be performed at The Fugard Theatre from April 30, Tuesday to Saturdays at 8pm with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are R190-R340. Book through The Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554 or at www.thefugard.com

@WeekendArgus

Weekend Argus