Theatre Review: Kunene And The King – Sister Act, Or Of Care, Cancer And Culture

June 14, 2022


Kunene And The King / Directed by Janice Honeyman / The Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg


The Mandela theatre is well known for hosting big extravaganzas – the annual pantomime and regular Joburg Ballet productions, for instance – so moving a dramatic two-hander into the venue, on a massive stage, is an interesting decision. It helps that the play stars two of South Africa’s most revered stage actors, and that the space has been made more intimate by building the stage out forward over the orchestra pit to bring the action closer to the audience. It’s also unfortunately true that Covid regulations still require audiences to be capped at 50% of the venue’s capacity, meaning that a smaller room may not allow for the expected popularity of the piece.

Intimacy makes a lot of sense when staging Kunene And The King, as one of the story’s themes is the reconciliatory power of theatre – in this case Shakespeare, specifically – and the more audience members can feel part of what’s going on onstage, the more effective that thread. Michael Richard plays Jack Morris, an old and old-fashioned stage actor who still has much to give in terms of his talent, but who is increasingly house-bound by liver cancer that he enthusiastically, if foolishly, nurtures with the aid of a supply of gin. John Kani, who also wrote the script, plays Sister Lunga Kunene, a retired carer nominated by an agency to look after Morris. That he prefers to be addressed by his feminine professional title is a running joke – as well as a layered comment on the importance of respecting another person – particularly of another race – in terms of the way they are spoken to.

Using a similar structure to Visiting Mr Green and other productions where a mismatched duo are forced to confront and then work through their various differences of opinion, Kunene…examines the still-raw legacy of institutional racism, how facing a terrifying health challenge with a companion is different to doing so alone, and how shared passions can overcome politics, suspicion and sickness to build bridges between very different individuals.

Richard vanishes into his character, presenting a belligerent but still intriguing man who is having to learn that he has to start giving up some control over his schedule and creative output. Kani isn’t afforded the same leeway, greeted (as the actor, not the character) by an enthusiastic cheer as he emerges on stage for the first time, and loudly vocally encouraged – probably to his immense irritation; it’s inappropriate behaviour in such a setting – at random points during his performance.

Still, the characters’ chemistry is clear and well-developed, particularly as they slowly, realistically, start to soften in their attitudes towards each other. Some of the dialogue comes across as a touch moralistic – telling rather than showing in some instances – but the actors’ performances, supported by a large, striking set and short musical interludes played on traditional instruments make sure that the words, and the whole narrative, land convincingly.

As a possible launchpad for a new run of powerful dramas in addition to Joburg Theatre’s established palette of dance, music and musicals, Kunene And The King sets the bar high.