Set in contemporary Johannesburg, Kunene and the King explores weighty issues of terminal illness, race, and the legacy of apartheid with a remarkably light touch.
Written by veteran South African actor John Kani, the script draws on his experiences of growing up in a segregated society, and – it must be said – quite often digresses into anecdotal asides. Here, a history of violence, oppression, and activism becomes a background for the story of two older men – one black, one white, both products of their disparate cultures – and the extraordinary events they lived through.
Kani plays semi-retired nurse Kunene, shouldering unhealable emotional scars but remaining a beacon of warmth and dignity as he administers end-of-life care to Antony Sher’s cantankerous Morris, an ageing actor with advanced liver cancer. Sher tackles this complicated character with real skill, equally terrified and outraged by the fact of his own mortality, delivering his lines in the flat, phlegmy croak of a man slowly drowning in morphine and gin.
Appearing between scenes, Lungiswa Plaatjies plays traditional instruments and sings with a lilting but resonant voice. At one point, she belts out a completely transporting vocal evocation of a summer storm, perfectly capturing the rumble of thunder and the hiss of falling hail.
A smart, revolving set by Birrie Le Roux depicts both men’s homes, packed with knickknacks and believable personal details. Kunene drapes a Kaizer Chiefs football scarf over a bust of Shakespeare. Morris keeps a seemingly inexhaustible supply of booze hidden in every nook and cranny. A backdrop of transparent screens stained in vivid hues, from a rich, sunset scarlet to an inky blue, adds a splash of vibrant colour to contrast with the otherwise washed out natural palette, a hint of energy and optimism that endures even through the play’s grimmest moments.
Director Janice Honeyman lets each scene develop in its own time, lifting meandering conversations with a good dose of gallows humour to get the most out of the play’s wrenching emotional shifts.
Gradually, Morris’ illness begins to feel omnipresent, viscerally interrupting him midway through musings on political history or rambles about Marxist subtexts in King Lear. “I’m boiling an egg, and I’ve got cancer,” he groans, unable to even momentarily forget his pain, much as Kunene is permanently aware of the suffering and oppression of his people.
At times, it all feels forced, a powerful premise constrained by odd-couple sitcom dynamics. But Kani’s writing remains deeply incisive, full of both anger and understanding. As his characters bicker, accuse and ultimately forgive each other, they point up the injustices of the past and the lingering corruption, crime, and violence that remain endemic even 25 years after the end of apartheid.