BWW Review: Kani's KUNENE AND THE KING Approaches Extant History with Acting Royalty
Returning to home soil after its international debut in Stratford-upon-Avon, John Kani's KUNENE AND THE KING is set to enthuse and confront local audiences with its South African run at the Fugard Theatre. The new and original production puts a complex relationship on display that is brought together by, not only intrinsic similarities, but also a little Shakespeare.
Sister Lunga Kunene (John Kani) has been tasked with looking after a terminally-ill actor, Jack Morris (Sir Antony Sher). Their evident physical differences between the two men, but their discourse and narrative also stand them as seemingly opposing forces as they embark on what Kani describes as "an uneasy friendship". What unfolds in the 90-minute dramedy is the breaking of physical barriers as well as the smoothing over of a complex relationship.
Some may say KUNENE AND THE KING's story is a historic monotony; someone of color meets someone not of color and the latter is transformed in some way by the former. What this production has achieved, however, is not only its timed significance 25 years after the first democratic elections; it has summed up the personal and societal implications of an entire democracy and before. Some lines are all too familiar to local audiences, while other truths elicit audible agreement and shock from a full audience.
Written by Kani, he places himself in the title role of this production but shows no intention of tiring of his own words. Playing Kunene, he transitions between caretaker, lecturer and storyteller to his new patient. Kani has been acting for over 50 years, and it is seen once again in KUNENE AND THE KING how this acclaimed actor is entirely comfortable on stage. He projects well and is unexpectedly agile at the age of 76. He does tend to break the fourth wall a fair amount and address the audience instead of Sher; perhaps the conviction to hammer home the message of his play overriding his acting naturalism.
Sher cannot be faulted on any account. In the role of a bitter, alcoholic, dying actor, he is irksome from the first 5 minutes. He has melted into the character of Morris so entirely that there are moments one almost cringes at the similarity he bears to familiar members of society. As detestable as his character is, Kani has weaved moments of humor and gentleness throughout the dialogue that makes Morris grow on you and almost makes him pitiful. By curtain call, there is a sense one has walked a months-long journey with both characters and there is an urge to be part of their conversation.
Glimpsing into the transformative relationship of Kunene and Morris has well-known director Janice Honeyman behind it. The sleek movements between Kani and Sher leave one almost forgetting there is a mind behind their placement, as Honeyman clearly completes a well-oiled triad of artistic powerhouses. Scene changes are lengthy, but filled with the vocal stylings of Lungiswa Plaatjies. The music choice is appropriately chosen for these interludes; an especially striking gap-filler being a storm song.
The sung scene changes are not without cause, however, as sets are detailed and have minor prop additions to them that add to the story as a whole. Old play posters of Morris' (realistically taken from Sher's repertoire) are sharply contrasted to Kunene's Kaiser Chiefs attire; once again emphasizing the surface difference between these two men that KUNENE AND THE KING approaches to break through.
While some liken KUNENE AND THE KING to the ripping off of a band-aid, I would compare it more so to the blood pressure monitor Kunene uses in the opening. One cannot escape the subject matter and, although it may feel uncomfortable at times, when tension is released there is a feeling of relief and hope. The end result, however, may rouse you to change.
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz
KUNENE AND THE KING will be performed at The Fugard Theatre Tuesday to Saturdays at 8pm with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets ranging from R190 to R340 can be booked directly through The Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554 or through The Fugard Theatre's website at www.thefugard.com.