Kunene & the King. Picture: The Fugard Theatre Cape Town
Kunene & the King. Picture: The Fugard Theatre Cape Town

A mutual love of Shakespeare is the only common ground John Kani (75) as Lunga Kunene and Sir Antony Sher (69) as John Morris find beyond a shared nationality when they are thrown together in a Joburg apartment for an indefinite time. Kunene is the unsuspecting carer and Shakespeare fan assigned to Sher, a high-status actor with a terminal illness who takes exception to being confronted not only with a male nurse but a black one in this most vulnerable phase of his life.

Why should people see this play, which recently premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon? If Sher’s knighthood for services to acting and writing and Kani’s Tony Award, among many other accolades earned over decades in the arts, aren’t enough motivation, the draw of seeing Sher deliver lines from King Lear should be the incentive. It’s enough to make you a Shakespeare devotee for life.

“First of all it’s not about apartheid. It’s only one of the themes,” says Sher. “It’s about illness and dying, which is universal, and it’s about Shakespeare.”

It’s one of the things that attracted the RSC to become a co-producer of this play. “You get some terrific exchanges,” says Sher. “During the course of their experience together they fight and argue and make one another laugh and grow to know one another. One of the things they discuss is their experience not only of the past 25 years of democracy but of growing up in apartheid SA. John is such a good writer; what people take away from the play is humanity. It’s about two older men.”

There’s a lot of humour in the play, which is very important, particularly if you’re dealing with dark subjects. “I think that characterised those two amazing plays, The Island and Sizwe Banzi is Dead, which John co-created with Winston Shona and Athol Fugard. Both were written in the dark heart of apartheid but were so full of humour.”

Sher’s performance in Kunene and The King is intense and I wondered how emotionally draining it was for him to tap into those extreme levels of anger and fear. “It’s never easy but it can be very stimulating. This play is about two things specifically that I love passionately, which is SA and Shakespeare. It’s a tough piece, because it’s just two people on stage for an hour and a half without a break, but I come away from each night feeling kind of exhilarated by going on that journey.”

Sher says he gets enormous pleasure out of writing and favours this among his creative skills. He has written several autobiographical books and theatre journals about playing specific Shakespeare parts that end up discussing his life in detail. “It’s something to do with being a workaholic that writing feeds my habit. Acting becomes very restricted. Rehearsals are very time-consuming and engrossing, but once the show is on you’re just performing for a couple of hours in the evening and for a workaholic that’s not enough. Painting is all to do with the practical job of having access to a studio and all the paraphernalia.”

Sher’s perception of himself as an outsider is well-documented. As a younger man he struggled to come out of various closets, “obviously as a gay man having grown up in this deeply reactionary society, but also once I had moved to England I became very ashamed of being a white South African who had been part of apartheid so I pretended not to be South African. As though you cannot be who you are … and being Jewish as well. When I became an actor in England I couldn’t see many examples of leading actors who were Jewish. I didn’t know if there was a prejudice about that or not. Again it’s something I didn’t really admit to.”

Does he still feel as though he’s an outsider? Yes, “but it’s been such a creative thing. I’ve ended up embracing and celebrating those things because so much material has [fed] into roles I’ve played or books I’ve written,” says Sher. “I don’t easily fit in, you can’t easily identify me. Am I South African? Am I British? I used to mind that, now I celebrate it.”

Kunene and The King is on at The Fugard Theatre until May 25