Kunene and King
Kunene and the King follows the story of Jack Morris (Antony Sher), a terminally ill sixty-five-year-old white actor living a relatively comfortable life in the suburbs of Johannesburg, and Lunga Kunene (John Kani), a sixty-nine-year-old black retired male nurse.
Having suffered innumerable losses during apartheid, Lunga must learn to deal with the tension over fifty years of apartheid has created whilst Jack’s health deteriorates at an unsustainable rate.
understand that the idea for this play first came about in 2009 – could you
tell us a little more about where the inspiration for this piece came from, and
how the play has developed over the last ten years?
Antony: Maybe you don’t remember this, John, but when we were
doing The Tempest in 2009, we had
coffee together one day and you did mention that you were thinking of a play. I
don’t remember any details, apart from that you were thinking of a two-hander
for you and me. And yes, of course I wanted to do that with you.
John: As a writer, I have these little stories in my mind, but
each one of them is pushed out by the one that seems most urgent. And I
remember putting Kunene and the King aside
to do so many other things – I did three movies and four plays, travelled the
world and came back. It was only last year, late last year, that I had time to
sit down and suddenly the story began to make sense. And I thought there was a
friend of mine (Antony Sher) who, at that particular time, I heard was doing King Lear, which is integral to my play.
Antony: It was so interesting because we spoke in 2009 and then not a word until, as you say, last year.
John: I sent the script to Tony, just to help me understand whether I had weaved the story of King Lear within the story of Lunga and Jack (the characters in Kunene and the King). And to my shock, I got this email from Tony saying he’s excited by it and had given it to Gregory Doran (RSC Artistic Director)!
Can you tell us a little bit more about
the relationship between Jack Morris and Lunga Kunene in this piece?
Antony: I think what’s really terrific in the writing is
that John has created these conflicts. You’ve got this old white man who we
find out is quite reactionary in his political views – he has some problems
relating to a black person, particularly one who’s going to be living in his
John: You don’t think of Jack as a white racist though –
you think of him as someone who grew up normally in this country but in another
area. It’s almost like there are two types of South Africa that know of each
other but don’t know about each
other. The play was a kind of exercise where I wanted to push how happy,
reconciled and accepting Lunga is of the new democratic order. To live with a
white man is an incredible, brand new experience for him.
Antony: The terrific conflict is that Jack is very ill, and Lunga is a nurse – a carer. So as much as Jack has these racial enmities, he needs the man. And I think that’s very interesting. And then in the opposite way, you’ve got this man who’s a carer and he’s got to be looking after someone who’s politically quite reactionary – so there’s a conflict there, and also in the way the two men have to negotiate their true feelings and their professional relationship.
Turning to your own lives for the
moment, what was your first encounter with Shakespeare growing up under apartheid,
and how did your early experiences of his work differ?
John: Mine was very simple. It was my secondary school
education in 1959 – my teacher walked in very proud and said we were doing a
new book: William Shakespeare’s Julius
Caesar. It was incredible. He made us stand up to read. He didn’t lecture
about the play, you just read one or two lines and then it would go to the next
student who would also read, and so it would go around and round. He would
stand behind you and say “Speak with volume,
speak with power, speak with love, speak with pain.”
Antony: For me, my journey to becoming a classical actor at
the RSC, was a very, very huge journey because I really didn’t grow up taught
or inspired by Shakespeare.
We were taught Shakespeare at our school – Seapoint Boy’s High – just as something they had to teach. There was no spark to it, and so like a lot of boys I found it boring and difficult.
John, you won a Tony for your work on The Island and Sizwe Banzi is Dead, but this also led to your arrest on your
return to South Africa. How did these plays change the way South Africa was
perceived by the wider world?
John: No one knows what’s going to be the impact of a
complete project. It was nice to do a play about a man who is tossed out
because past laws have restricted the movement of black people in South Africa
(Sizwe Banzi is Dead) and a play that
paid tribute to those men and women in the Maximum Security Prison, Robben
Island (The Island).
Antony: Those two plays were funny and sad and passionate.
It was remarkable. I can’t think of other plays in theatre history that might
have done what those two plays did politically. It’s remarkable.
John: We were amazed by the reactions of people, especially in England. People were asking “What the hell is this? How did you write this? Where did it come from? What school did you go to? What philosophy is behind it?”
Still, when we arrived back in South Africa we got arrested, and you know it’s fine because it made us more popular, and it also made us relevant for the liberation struggle. We were not naïve – we knew we were trampling on the toes of the system and we were a threat to the system. But there was absolutely support for the work we were doing. I remember Oliver Tambo, the then president of the ANC, saying that “you explained to the British the evil of apartheid, something we’ve been trying to do in speeches for 20 to 30 years, you just did in one night.”
Antony: There’s so many people who see political theatre as a
weak form because it’s preaching to the converted, but as you’ve just
demonstrated by that story, you were preaching to the unconverted. In that
sense, it wasn’t preachy at all.
How was it as a black South African,
touring South Africa under apartheid?
John: We couldn’t tour. We moved from township to township instead. In our theatre, we used to do one-night performances and move onto the next place – and move and move and move. Many times, the play would be stopped. Many times, some of us would be detained. I remember when we did The Terrorists I was immediately detained because we changed the assassination of the Duke to the President of the Party of South Africa which made the entire script political. By the time we got to plays like Swizu Banzu is Dead the police knew exactly where to get us. Sometimes they didn’t even stop the play, they just put police in front of the door and people stopped coming because they could see they’d be arrested.
When we came to England in 1973 it was the first time I’d ever performed and not thought “how do I keep out of backstage to avoid security?”
The worst for me was after we won the Tony Award, I said thank you and Winston Ntshona (who appeared in the play with me) said thank you and we walked out.
John, you made history playing Othello opposite a white actress in the
Market Theatre in 1987 at the height of apartheid. What do you remember about
the play’s reception at the time – and what made you take on the role knowing
the risks involved?
John: I’d just done a play called The Native Who Caused All the Trouble at the Market Theatre, when
Janet Suzman came to me and said: “It’s about time,” to which I say, “What?”
“To do the big one of course!” and I said “Janet, what are you talking about?”
and she said: “Othello!” to which I
said, “Oh no! I carry eleven stab wounds on my body, have survived assignation,
been detained and have to be careful even walking the street because everybody
wants me dead. So thank you, but I am not going to do this play.”
I said I would only do it if I was the only black actor… and then we started rehearsals.
It was after I was cast that the police came to my house because they wanted to know whose idea it was to do this play because Othello kissed Desdemona on stage, who in this case was a white woman… so I just said “Well the Market Theatre wanted me to play Othello. I’m just an actor.”
The police would go through the play with me. So I’m just sitting there thinking, “Oh my god, the policeman has read the play!” And then I said, “You know sir, when Sir Laurence Olivier played the role he put a lot of black stuff and polish all over the face, and each time Desdemona tried to kiss him she left a black smudge on the beautiful white makeup – I don’t have the problem.” And he said to me “Shut Up!” and went to the next page.
There are some schools of thought that
believe that Shakespeare shouldn’t be taught in South African schools and
universities – how would you respond to those trying to de-colonize the
curriculum in this way?
Tony: The arts are our spiritual health as human beings. If
you’re going to cut away Shakespeare, it’s like you’re cutting away penicillin
or the most important factor within our own spiritual health. Shakespeare is
obviously the greatest, and any society who removes it is just committing a bit
of a spiritual suicide.
John: I was once talking about building a strong army for
the revolution, but somebody said to me: “No John,” you need books in all the
African communities because we’re such a closed, in-grown toenail society and
we need reading to open our minds. Shakespeare gave us that opportunity.
Shakespeare deals with right vs wrong, dark vs light, emotions, love and evil.
Nothing we have written after the 37 plays of Shakespeare that we could claim
is brand new thought. Shakespeare has been here since the learning of the settlers
of this country. So how can you sort of, extract, like a rotten tooth, out of
the African culture? It is impossible.
This year marks the 25th
anniversary of the first post-apartheid vote in South Africa. Looking back as a
quarter century of change in your home nation, what are your hopes for the
future of the country?
John: As we celebrate 25 years of democracy, we need to
actually sit down and analyse what we did do, didn’t do and what still needs to
didn’t know the state of the nation in 1994. The majority of black people were
so far removed from the reality of the economy or management or the legal
system. All we knew was running and fighting. And in 1994 we were suddenly in
the ruling party with no experience whatsoever. To the point that I remember
one guy saying “How can Mandela run a country? He’s never even run a shop! What
does he know about it?” Which was true. Whilst we made incredible strides
ahead, we also tripped on our own shoelaces.
It’s been 25 years, and yes, we have a country and a government. We have institutions, and we have all the pillars that hold us together, but inside that crowd, there’s a lot of things we still need to do. And I think we realise it now more than ever.
Kunene and the King runs in
the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon between 21 March – 23 April.
The production runs in The Fugard Theatre, Cape Town, South Africa from 30 April.
The post Q and A with John Kani and Antony Sher, who appear in John Kani’s new play appeared first on The South African.