Memorable, layered two-hander

John Kani and Michael Richard in Kunene and the King, at Durban’s Playhouse Opera only until Sunday, July 3.

STAGE: Kunene and The King – Playhouse Opera, Durban, until July 3

A DRAMA probing politics, class, race, culture, fear and anger in South Africa 25 years after democracy – and also cleverly, very deftly drawing parallels with William Shakespeare’s King LearKunene and the King makes for great theatre. That it has fared very well locally and in the UK comes as no surprise.

On the surface it is a fine, masterfully moulded study of an unlikely, uneasy friendship. However, it so much more than that, revealing many layers and much depth.

The play comes with an excellent pedigree. It was written by Dr John Kani, one of South Africa’s most acclaimed actor-playwrights, and a bonus is that Kani also stars in it, alongside the equally seasoned and celebrated Michael Richard. The work has the further distinction of having been directed by one of the country’s finest, Janice Honeyman.

The production, originally with Kani performing with Anthony Sher, drew routinely excellent reviews when first staged in England and Cape Town in 2019, then again at The Ambassadors Theatre in London in 2020. We are blessed, at a time when theatres can finally play to capacity audiences again after Covid-19 horrors, to have it in Durban now, albeit for only a few performances.

Frankly, anyone appreciating fine theatre would be crazy to miss it.

Kunene and The King is so compelling that its 100 minutes (no interval) simply fly by, the tale highlighting both humour and pathos, some very real and raw home truths, and much food for thought.

The focus is on two elderly men, one black and one white. Jack Morris is a celebrated white actor battling with stage four cancer of the liver, and Lunga Kunene is a top caregiver who, now retired and freelancing through an agency, arrives to care for Jack at the tetchy actor’s Johannesburg home.

Jack is immediately caught off guard, having expected a white woman nurse, and, in spite of professing to be liberal, is quick to show his true colours when he, very begrudgingly, allows Lunga to occupy his estranged son’s bedroom. One also cringes when he later tells Lunga, while the caregiver is making tea, that there is an enamel cup for him on the kitchen shelf.

The tension between the two men becomes increasingly thick, each referring to “you people” or “my people” as they have some heated conversations in the days that follow. The situation is not helped by Jack literally drowning his pain and sorrows with swigs from bottles of gin he hides throughout his home.

But slowly the men start to come to realise, amid all their major differences, that they share more than simply having grown up, albeit on different sides of the track, in apartheid South Africa.

The catalyst is Shakespeare, Jack learning lines to play the lead role in a production of King Lear headed for Cape Town later in the year, and Lunga, who sometimes helps Jack with the lines, admitting a passion for the Bard after having studied an isiXhosa translation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in his younger years.

The men also discover they share loss in that each has a child who no longer talks to them. Each is lonely. Each harbours fears for the present South Africa.

How they interact, while dealing with the increasing pain and problems experienced by the cantankerous and insecure Jack, pulls the focus of a play which sees the men constantly bickering, reconciling, bickering again – and slowly, steadily, revealing hints of a possible, fragile friendship. It builds to a memorable finale, with both performers on top form throughout.

If there is any small quibble with this production it is that the sprawling Playhouse Opera stage tends to swallow up the drama a little. The smaller Drama Theatre in the Playhouse complex would have lent a lot more intimacy to the work.

Also, while undeniably effective, the interludes of a woman, Lungiswa Plaatjies, singing and playing various traditional instruments as a means of linking scenes, are sometimes just a little too long.

These small moans notwithstanding, don’t miss this stellar offering, a collaboration between the Playhouse Company and the Joburg Theatre.

Remaining performances of Kunene and the King are at 2pm today (June 26), 7pm from Tuesday to Saturday (June 28 to July 2) and 2pm on Sunday, July 3. Tickets cost R120 and booking is at Webtickets or via the Playhouse box-office at (031) 3699 450.

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