It’s a great coincidence that this play by John Kani is playing in the Swan Theatre at the same time as King Lear is playing at the small but splendid Attic Theatre. Why? Kunene and the King, set in post-apartheid South Africa, features an ageing and dying actor who keeps himself alive by his casting as King Lear in an upcoming production. Kani cleverly but subtly uses a lot of elements of King Lear in his play as well as its main plot being about the relationship between actor Jack Morris (played by Sir Anthony Sher) and his new carer, Sister Lunga Kunene (played by John Kani).
Janice Honeyman directs this two hander carefully and subtly. The play has a wonderful explosive opening when Kunene arrives and Morris goes to attack him as an intruder. Race and sexism are thrust immediately into the play as Morris is not expecting a black male to be his carer. We soon realise that ‘carer’ is both a theme and a metaphor – in Morris’s house and in South Africa. The room set with screens allows the audience to imagine the room they see leading to others and to outside and although there is a sense in which the set is the inside of Morris’s head there is also a sense of a wider environment where social and political interactions take place. Much of the opening scene of the play is comic, although there are always dark edges to the comedy. Morris tells Kunene that he has given up drink but he has gin bottles hidden everywhere and the audience is prompted to guess where the next one might be found.
The play explores the relationship between the two men but also between the two races and because much of the play is taken up with going over the lines of King Lear further parallels are made between theatre and life, being and acting and both metaphorical and literal black and white. There is a wonderful moment at the end of the second scene where Morris reaches out and holds Kunene’s hand, Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee enacted in miniature. Indeed the parallels between what is going on in the room and what went on in South Africa run throughout this fine play.
The third and last scene is about transformation, heralded by the turning round of the flats to reveal Kunene’s house in Soweto, the room presided over by the bust of Shakespeare which Morris had given him, now swathed in Kunene’s favourite football team’s scarf. Kani draws on medical sources for the final scene as Morris loses his pain and gains manic energy culminating in a kind of dance of death.
The acting is exemplary, the emotional roller coaster finely calibrated. It would be a hard-hearted audience member who was not stimulated and moved.