John Kani and Antony Sher in 'Kunene and the King'
John Kani and Antony Sher in 'Kunene and the King' © Ellie Kurttz

Actor-turned-playwright John Kani was the first black South African to play Othello. His love scenes with the white actor playing Desdemona sparked violent protests in apartheid-era Johannesburg, in a reminder of how fiercely political 400-year-old texts can be. Now, decades later, he has brought his own Shakespeare-inflected narrative of prejudice to the bard’s birthplace.

Antony Sher stars as Jack Morris, a famous classical actor who is gearing up to play King Lear in a Johannesburg living room that’s crowded with books and actorly memorabilia. The only trouble is that he’s dying. As a South African-born RSC regular, Sher isn’t exactly playing against type here. But he is compelling to watch, all sweat and swagger, falling back on old routines to keep himself together. Kani himself takes the role of Kunene, an experienced nurse who is tasked with caring for Morris. In a neat bit of symmetry, Kunene has to act just as much as Morris does: he has to mask his feelings and keep on administering pills as his patient doles out hefty doses of vitriol.

There’s much to delight thespy types here. It’s only a few years since Sher made a rave-reviewed appearance as King Lear at the RSC, so the sight of him grimly carping about high-concept stagings or tossing off a perfect line-reading is delicious. But the real meat of Kani’s play is something more serious. Stuck indoors, these two ageing men sketch out the landscape of the two very different South Africas they grew up in: one a bougie haven of Italian cafés and theatres, the other a township locked in fierce political struggle. And soon, a third South Africa emerges: the modern city where Morris and Kunene still aren’t equals.

Kunene must constantly fight for the dignity that his upbringing under apartheid denied him. He picks apart Morris’s insidious racism, which slips out in his dismissive attitudes towards black South Africans, or his refusal to pronounce Xhosa words accurately, even as he effortlessly bends his tongue around iambic pentameters. Shakespeare sustains Morris’s world view, but Kunene comes to his own, distinctly political reading of King Lear.

John Kani's Kunene picks apart the insidious racism of Sher's Jack Morris
John Kani's Kunene picks apart the insidious racism of Sher's Jack Morris © Ellie Kurttz

The two men repeatedly lock antlers without ever truly shifting their positions. But perhaps western literature’s endless stock of deathbed redemptions is unrealistic. Instead, director Janice Honeyman’s production culminates in a storm, with juddering live sound from Lungiswa Plaatjies. Far from his home, Morris breaks down and Kunene regains the power that’s been stripped from him.

One of Kani’s earliest roles was in Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, a 1972 work by Athol Fugard. Fugard has come to define depictions of South Africa on stage, with a spate of revivals of his plays planned for this year. Twenty-five years since apartheid ended, it’s fascinating and necessary to see Kani bring things up to date. His play calls out to a South Africa that is not changing fast enough, while showing how Shakespeare’s words can both confront and confirm old prejudices.


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