|By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN
Like Athol Fugard, actor John Kani is a formidable force whose courage during South Africa’s immersive apartheid years – which officially ended with Nelson Mandela’s release from prison 25 years ago – cannot be measured.
Having appeared in landmark indigenous productions such as Fugard’s The Blood Knot, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, The Island, Master Harold and the Boys, and My Children, My Africa, he has also impressed in Shakespeare (Hamlet, Othello, The Tempest) as well as in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Strindberg’s Dance of Death, Albee’s The Death of Bessie Smith and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
Given these impressive credits and the indelible contribution he had made to theatre in general and South African theatre in particular, I had hoped to include his own new play Kunene and the King among his accomplishments. Instead, it is little more than a creaky showcase for him and fellow South African costar Antony Sher, who once played Prospero to his Caliban.
In Kunene and the King, Sher plays Jack Martin, a dyspeptic, gin-guzzling actor in his 70s who is terminally ill with fourth-degree liver cancer. Though a quarter of a century has passed since the ANC came to power, Jack has never come to terms with the new South Africa and delusionally believes he still has what it takes to play King Lear.
Kani is the titular Kunene, a live-in carer – or “sister,” as he calls himself – who has been sent by a local hospital to look after Jack because there is no one else in the old actor’s fast-decaying life to do so. Expecting a bosomy, Barbara Windsor-type nurse out of a Carry On film, Jack is discombobulated by the sudden appearance of Kunene (first name Lunga), an elderly black man whom he initially mistakes for an intruder.
The relationship starts off in querulous mode, but, as in the case of Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy (in which Kani once appeared as the chauffeur), a bond of sorts is, predictably, established as the two disparate men eventually settle into a routine and get to know and understand one another.
Against an all-pervasive background of the country’s strict apartheid regime and its ongoing legacy, some defining moments in their past lives are revealed – especially Kunene’s, whose ambition to become a doctor was thwarted by the Soweto riots and its aftermath.
In contrast, Jack’s life was one of privilege and protection. He patronisingly refers to blacks as “you people” and, according to Kunene, has no conception of either “truth” or “reconciliation.” The one thing they have in common is that both have appeared in plays by Shakespeare: Jack (according to a poster hanging on his wall) in Hamlet and Kunene in a Xhosa translation of Julius Caesar.
But it is King Lear that not only obsesses the dying actor, but which Kani the playwright uses to draw some clunky and not particularly convincing parallels between Kunene and Lear, in that both were abandoned by their families. To further underline the parallels, there’s even a dramatic storm.
Though there’s not a great deal of plot to explore in the play’s 90-minute running time, the unlikely prospect of Jack playing Lear underpins the play’s development. Had this just been the fantasy of a dying old actor, I wouldn’t have had a problem. But the offer to play this most challenging of all Shakespearean roles is no fantasy. A performing arts centre in Cape Town called Artscape has actually approached the terminally ill septuagenarian to do just that.
Wouldn’t Jack’s agent, with whom he is in contact, know how impossible such an undertaking would be? Artscape has even suggested they all meet up. Given how small the South African theatre community is, surely the casting director has been aware of Jack’s condition? It just doesn’t make much sense.
Throughout the play, Sher’s dishevelled appearance (as befits the role) is something of a shock. He speaks raspingly with a strong South African accent, which one can only hope he’d only use if the play was relocated to South Africa – something which has not yet happened but probably will. In general, South African actors of Jack’s particular generation – be they Afrikaans or English – spoke meticulous Queen’s English when performing the classics, some even to the point of exaggeration. Sher gives no indication that Jack would be capable of this.
Nor could I believe that Jack would ever descend into luvvie-speak and call his carer “darling,” as he occasionally does. Nothing in his character or behaviour justifies or anticipates this particular affectation.
The play’s final scene takes place in Kunene’s sparsely furnished home in Johannesburg’s violent Soweto township. I accept that, in changing the location, Kani is making a point about how little the fundamentals have improved for the majority of black people since the dismantling of apartheid. What is harder to accept is the contrivance that Jack, in his frail condition, would have taken the risk of getting into a black taxi with eight other people, to make the long journey to Soweto from the hospital he had just been to, knowing that he would be seeing Kunene back in the comfort of his own home an hour later.
That said, it’s only in this third and final scene that Kani confronts, head-on, some of the serious issues undermining the quality of life for many underprivileged South Africans today: the violence, the corruption, the raping of children and the rampant inequality that is so cripplingly problematic over there.
The rest of the play (the director is Janice Honeyman) exists in a time warp and doffs its cap to the aforementioned Driving Miss Daisy, as well as to Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser and Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys.
Despite inconsistencies in the behaviour of its two central characters, it’s performed with great gusto by its two charismatic leading men, who certainly make their presences felt.
Yet it’s all so sketchy and predictable. There’s certainly a play waiting in the wings about the changes in South Africa during the last 25 years and how those changes have negatively impinged on the country’s multi-ethnic population. But this isn’t it.