Review – Kunene and the King, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 6th April 2019

Kunene and the KingJack Morris, an ailing, white, Shakespearean actor with liver cancer brought on by excessive drinking, has been hired to perform King Lear at a theatre in Johannesburg. The promise of playing this iconic role is the only thing that keeps him going – well, that, and the Gordon’s gin. Enter Sister Kunene – Sister as in nurse, rather than in family – a black carer from Soweto who has been hired to live with Jack until he dies (I mean, until he gets better). Both men will need to learn the art of compromise if this professional relationship is going to work. But they have one thing in common: Shakespeare.KATK 3 Kunene’s only knowledge of Shakespeare is Julius Caesar, taught in the townships as a warning about conspiracy, but he longs to know more. So when he starts helping Jack with his lines, not only does he start to appreciate the grandeur that is Lear, he also learns how best to communicate with his patient. Whether the patient is prepared to meet him half-way is another matter…

KATK 7Janice Honeyman’s production for the RSC and Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre is an engrossing, vivid, and honest (sometimes brutally so) insight into the world of these two disparate men and the search for the common humanity that must link them. Birrie le Roux’s two-part set portrays both the cluttered, egotistical, bookish home of the actor, no longer able to take care of himself; and the simple, clean dignity of the nurse’s kitchen, making the best of sixty-year-old furniture, with just his football team’s scarf as a decorative note.KATK 8 Incidentally, it’s while we’re enjoying Lungiswa Plaatjies’ mesmeric performance of Neo Muyanga’s strong, entr’acte vocal compositions that somehow the actor’s pad gets transformed into the nurse’s kitchen without our even noticing. Very smooth!

KATK 2There are few greater names associated with the last fifty years of South African theatre than that of John Kani. Actor, playwright, director; a shining beacon in the fight against apartheid through the medium of the stage. It had always been an ambition of mine to see him on stage – and with Kunene and the King, all my expectations of his stage presence and performance quality were exceeded. KATK 5And not only John Kani, but we get another of South Africa’s theatrical heroes, Sir Antony Sher. It was only a few months ago that he was chillingly brilliant in One for the Road, part of the Pinter at the Pinter season. As Jack Morris he is delightfully irascible, dictatorial, and bossy; but also, like Lear, vulnerable, confused and a foolish, fond old man. It’s a fantastic portrayal of a once powerful character, losing his potency through age and sickness; still immensely proud and independent, harking back to the old days when there’s absolutely no way he would have allowed a black man in his house.KATK 9 John Kani’s Kunene is also a proud and dignified man; nobody’s maid or servant, but a highly qualified professional person, and he needs it to be recognised. When Morris challenges Kunene’s integrity and position, Kunene has to find a way to work through the anger and resentment of the decades in order to carry out his professional role.

KATK 1The final scene, where Jack tracks Kunene back to his Soweto home, narrowly avoiding a public transport disaster to get there, in order to get his publicity photos taken for the production of Lear, culminates in a grand argument where they both realise the awfulness of what each of them is doing to the other; thus they then have their own equivalent of a Truth and Reconciliation process. Written to commemorate 25 years of open elections since the end of apartheid, the strained, yet often joyful relationship between the two characters tells some of the story of how South African society operates today.

KATK 6At barely over 90 minutes without an interval, the play fairly whizzes by. It’s a work of delicate quality, insight and structure, and I could easily have enjoyed another 90 minutes. A chance to watch two masters at work, but it’s only on at the Swan until 23rd April. After that, it opens at the Fugard in Cape Town on 30th April. Unmissable!

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

Review – Pinter One, Pinter at the Pinter Season, The New World Order, Mountain Language, One For The Road, Ashes To Ashes, plus five other short pieces, Harold Pinter Theatre, 20th October 2018

Pinter OneBack at the Harold Pinter Theatre for another session of Pinteresque shorts, and an outstanding programme, beautifully sequenced, of nine fascinating pieces – ok, maybe there was one I wasn’t that keen on, but I just don’t think I had the time to pay attention to it. Eight short pieces were crammed into the first half, plus another one-act play after the interval, and a fantastic night of dramatic tension it truly was. I’ve rarely had such a varied and challenging experience in the theatre, on both an intellectual and emotional level.

jonjo-oneillJonjo O’Neill opened the proceedings with Press Conference, a piece Pinter wrote for the 2002 National Theatre show Sketches, and a role which he himself originally performed. To an explosion of confetti that lingers, ironically, in your clothes and on the seats and floor for the rest of the evening, the Minister for Culture is received rapturously in some kind of totalitarian state, and then answers questions about the state attitude to children and women, which includes killing them and raping them (“it was part of an educational process”). It’s so outrageous that you’re completely shocked, but the juxtaposition of upbeat jollity and Mr O’Neill’s excellent performance, means it’s hard not to laugh, even though you hate yourself for doing so. You reassure yourself with the thought “it couldn’t happen here…” but then you look around you at the world today, and wonder…. A perfect introduction to a disturbing evening’s entertainment.

kate-oflynn-and-maggie-steedPrecisely, a 1983 sketch originally performed by Martin Jarvis and Barry Foster, featured Maggie Steed and Kate O’Flynn, suited up like two overfed and over-indulged politicians, discussing how to carve up the country for some unknown plan that’s clearly just for their own benefit and no one else’s. Maggie Steed in particular reminded me of the way they used to represent Mrs Thatcher in Spitting Image – with Churchill’s suit and cigar – gritty, cynical, powerful. As is nearly always the case with Pinter, the non-specific nature of the threat made it all the more unsettling. Terrifically acted, brief to perform but hard to forget.

paapa-essiedu-and-jonjo-oneillThe New World Order, first performed in 1991, shows Des (Jonjo O’Neill) and Lionel (the brilliant Paapa Essiedu) tormenting a naked, silent, blindfolded prisoner (Jonathan Glew), and reminded me so much of the mental torturers Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party only forty years on. Whilst the majority of their vitriol is hurled against the prisoner, the more experienced Des sometimes challenges the more youthful Lionel about his approach, criticising his use of language: (“You called him a c*** last time. Now you call him a prick. How many times do I have to tell you? You’ve got to learn to define your terms and stick to them.”) Like Press Conference, at times it’s incredibly funny, but the overwhelming atmosphere is one of terror.

maggie-steed-and-paapa-essieduNext, Mountain Language, a 1988 play that Pinter wrote following a visit to Turkey, although he always insisted that it was not based on the political situation between Turks and Kurds. In some miserable military camp, prisoners are apparently taken captive for the crime of speaking the “mountain language”. They are mountain people, the language is their own language, but it has been outlawed. The deprivation and penalties for transgressing this law are severe. Even though the threat in this play is a little more obvious, it’s no less sinister; and, as in The New World Order, paapa-essieduthere is an element of comedy in the interplay between the captors and interrogators, as well as some nonsensical rules that cannot be followed – such as when the old woman has been bitten by a Dobermann Pinscher but the authorities won’t do anything about it unless they can tell them the name of the dog. Jamie Lloyd’s direction brings out the starkness of the situation and I loved the decision to give the role of the Guard to the disembodied voice of Michael Gambon – a very effective way of increasing the “otherworldly” aspect of the play. Riveting, disturbing, unforgettable.

paapa-essiedu-and-jonjo-oneillThen we had Kate O’Flynn performing Pinter’s poem American Football. I think I was still so overwhelmed by the themes and imagery of Mountain Language that I scarcely noticed this short piece. It was written in 1991 as a reaction to the Gulf War, and satirises the action of the American military at war as if they were just playing a game of football. It didn’t, for me, have the stand-out nature of the other pieces; maybe if it had been repositioned in the running order it might have worked better? Genuinely not sure.

jon-culshawThen an unexpected moment of lightness. The Pres and the Officer is a short piece only discovered by his widow Lady Antonia Fraser last year in a notepad; she remarked that his handwriting was quite frail so presumably he wrote it sometime in his final years – he died in 2008. Lady Antonia said she has often been asked what Pinter would have made of Trump – so now we know! This presages the American president so accurately that it takes your breath away. The simple premise: the President gives the order to nuke London. He says they had it coming to them. After a short conversation with his officer, he realises he made a mistake and it should have been Paris. So many questions, so little time. With a guest star playing the unnamed President (I think it was Jon Culshaw) this little sketch is horrifyingly hilarious.

antony-sher-and-paapa-essieduAnother poem next; Death, from 1997, given a sombre but effective reading by Maggie Steed. It takes the form of a clinical set of questions about a dead body that have a strange way of making you think about death and the dead in an unemotional way. A simple, but fascinating poem, which I enjoyed very much, despite its dour subject matter.

quentin-deborneThat led us into the final piece before the interval, One For The Road, and the first time I’d seen Antony Sher on stage since Peter Barnes’ Red Noses for the RSC in 1985. His performance as the creepy, faux-avuncular Nicolas, doing a one-man nice cop nasty cop routine as part of an interrogation procedure, was outstanding and worth the ticket price alone. antony-sher-and-kate-oflynnDominating both Paapa Essiedu’s Victor and Kate O’Flynn’s Gila into nervous wrecks, the most chilling scene was his interrogation of seven-year-old Nicky, their son, played with fantastic confidence by young Quentin Deborne. It was when Nicolas was fingering the neckline of Nicky’s T-shirt you could really feel your sweat forming and your gorge rising. A riveting play with an immaculate performance, and, despite its awfulness, I loved it.

paapa-essieduAll that, and it was only just time for the interval! After the ice-cream and Chardonnay break, it was back for Ashes to Ashes, directed by Lia Williams. Kate O’Flynn and Paapa Essiedu starred in this moving and disturbing one-act play from 1996; partly a stream of consciousness between a couple in a relationship, partly a sequence of reminiscences and imaginings, partly a conversation with a counsellor in therapy.  paapa-essiedu-and-kate-oflynnBecause Pinter keeps all the references as obscure as possible, this play can mean all things to all people, but there is definitely a suggestion of families being torn apart on the way to a Concentration Camp at the end of the play. Superb performances – and an exceptional lighting design by Jon Clark that added enormously to the mood and the terror.

paapa-essieduAfter the relative frothiness of the afternoon’s Pinter Two programme, this was an emotional sucker punch that left us sitting in our seats for minutes after it had ended, trying to make sense of all that had gone before. Brilliant performances throughout, but it’s Kate O’Flynn and Paapa Essiedu who had the majority of the work to do, and they carried it off amazingly. And, to cap it all, Antony Sher’s nauseatingly superb interrogator Nicolas ran off with the Best Characterisation of the Night award. Congratulations to the whole cast for an awe-inspiring production.

Production photos by Marc Brenner