Jack Morris, an ailing, white, Shakespearean actor with liver cancer brought on by excessive drinking, has been hired to perform King Lear at a theatre in Johannesburg. The promise of playing this iconic role is the only thing that keeps him going – well, that, and the Gordon’s gin. Enter Sister Kunene – Sister as in nurse, rather than in family – a black carer from Soweto who has been hired to live with Jack until he dies (I mean, until he gets better). Both men will need to learn the art of compromise if this professional relationship is going to work. But they have one thing in common: Shakespeare. Kunene’s only knowledge of Shakespeare is Julius Caesar, taught in the townships as a warning about conspiracy, but he longs to know more. So when he starts helping Jack with his lines, not only does he start to appreciate the grandeur that is Lear, he also learns how best to communicate with his patient. Whether the patient is prepared to meet him half-way is another matter…
Janice Honeyman’s production for the RSC and Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre is an engrossing, vivid, and honest (sometimes brutally so) insight into the world of these two disparate men and the search for the common humanity that must link them. Birrie le Roux’s two-part set portrays both the cluttered, egotistical, bookish home of the actor, no longer able to take care of himself; and the simple, clean dignity of the nurse’s kitchen, making the best of sixty-year-old furniture, with just his football team’s scarf as a decorative note. Incidentally, it’s while we’re enjoying Lungiswa Plaatjies’ mesmeric performance of Neo Muyanga’s strong, entr’acte vocal compositions that somehow the actor’s pad gets transformed into the nurse’s kitchen without our even noticing. Very smooth!
There are few greater names associated with the last fifty years of South African theatre than that of John Kani. Actor, playwright, director; a shining beacon in the fight against apartheid through the medium of the stage. It had always been an ambition of mine to see him on stage – and with Kunene and the King, all my expectations of his stage presence and performance quality were exceeded. And not only John Kani, but we get another of South Africa’s theatrical heroes, Sir Antony Sher. It was only a few months ago that he was chillingly brilliant in One for the Road, part of the Pinter at the Pinter season. As Jack Morris he is delightfully irascible, dictatorial, and bossy; but also, like Lear, vulnerable, confused and a foolish, fond old man. It’s a fantastic portrayal of a once powerful character, losing his potency through age and sickness; still immensely proud and independent, harking back to the old days when there’s absolutely no way he would have allowed a black man in his house. John Kani’s Kunene is also a proud and dignified man; nobody’s maid or servant, but a highly qualified professional person, and he needs it to be recognised. When Morris challenges Kunene’s integrity and position, Kunene has to find a way to work through the anger and resentment of the decades in order to carry out his professional role.
The final scene, where Jack tracks Kunene back to his Soweto home, narrowly avoiding a public transport disaster to get there, in order to get his publicity photos taken for the production of Lear, culminates in a grand argument where they both realise the awfulness of what each of them is doing to the other; thus they then have their own equivalent of a Truth and Reconciliation process. Written to commemorate 25 years of open elections since the end of apartheid, the strained, yet often joyful relationship between the two characters tells some of the story of how South African society operates today.
At barely over 90 minutes without an interval, the play fairly whizzes by. It’s a work of delicate quality, insight and structure, and I could easily have enjoyed another 90 minutes. A chance to watch two masters at work, but it’s only on at the Swan until 23rd April. After that, it opens at the Fugard in Cape Town on 30th April. Unmissable!
Production photos by Ellie Kurttz