Kunene And The King
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Until Apr 23, 1hr 45 mins
Here’s an amazing encounter with two great actors in a terrific new play. It’s written by South Africa’s great theatre star, the 76-year-old John Kani, whose work on stage helped alert the world to the realities of apartheid.
You wouldn’t notice but he has a prosthetic eye thanks to a police beating. Kani was also the first black Othello in South Africa, joking that ‘at least I’ll be able to kiss Desdemona without leaving a smudge’.
Now the great man teams up with Sir Antony Sher, also originally from South Africa, in a play set in that country today. He plays a medic assigned to provide live-in care to an ageing, semi-alcoholic actor, Jack Morris (Sher), who has accepted the role of King Lear only to discover he has terminal liver cancer.
John Kani plays a medic assigned to provide live-in care to an ageing, semi-alcoholic actor, Jack Morris (Sir Antony Sher), who has accepted the role of King Lear
It’s mostly staged in Jack’s flat, where Sher shuffles sordidly about in Crocs, trying to learn his lines, swigging at forbidden bottles of gin hidden in every crevice. A testy, sarcastic old so-and-so, this dying thesp remains loyal to the bad old days of white rule.
John Kani is no less good as Lunga Kunene, the neat, intensely dignified carer who gives as good as he gets.
What makes the event so special is that it’s written from bitter experience. When the petulant Jack chucks his soiled underpants in his carer’s face, Kunene’s decades-old anger suddenly erupts like Vesuvius.
When the petulant Jack chucks his soiled underpants in his carer’s face, Kunene’s (John Kani) decades-old anger suddenly erupts like Vesuvius
He picks up, too, on Morris’s phrase ‘you people’ and all his provoking habits of white dominance.
But in this match between patient and carer, the old country versus the new, Shakespeare becomes both referee and healer. The two men find through him a way of meeting each other, equal to equal.
There’s a gorgeous scene in which Morris repeats lines from Julius Caesar while Kunene, who remembers them from his schooldays, echoes them in the clicking language of isiXhosa.
IT’S A FACT
John Kani’s actor son Atandwa played a younger version of Kani’s Captain America: Civil War character T’Chaka in Black Panter.
You learn a lot, too, about King Lear, and the play’s storm scene is chucked in for good measure. Kani’s actor’s insights into the play – which Sher himself has toured around the world – have real freshness and clarity.
The action is directed with a light touch by South African Janice Honeyman in this co-production with Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre. An added treat is the female vocalist Lungiswa Plaatjies, who sings (I don’t know what) ravishingly from the gallery.
It’s a deeply human play: fierce, funny and never cheesy. I can’t recommend it too highly.
Lyttelton Theatre, London Until Jul 20, 2hrs 30mins
This is the play – an A-level favourite written in 1982 by Caryl Churchill – that opens with female historical figures in a swanky restaurant at a bash hosted by Marlene, an Eighties career woman.
Guests include Pope Joan; the 13th-century Japanese courtesan turned nun Lady Nijo; militant hag Dull Gret, who was depicted by Breugel; the intrepid 19th-century traveller Isabella Bird; and Patient Griselda, a symbol of female endurance down the centuries.
A group of female historical figures including Patient Griselda (Lucy Ellinson) are invited to a bash in a swanky restaurant hosted by Marlene, an Eighties career woman
These brutally abused women natter away, getting plastered on Frascati. Pope Joan even throws up. This is – or should be – one of the great fantasy scenes in modern theatre. But in Lyndsey Turner’s oddly lifeless production there’s barely a laugh.
We get to see Marlene in action – played with brassy confidence and shoulder pads by Katherine Kingsley – at the shiny offices of the Top Girls agency. But the action only finally comes to life when Marlene visits, in East Anglia, her estranged sister Joyce, expertly played by Lucy Black.
We get to see Marlene in action, played with brassy confidence and shoulder pads by Katherine Kingsley (pictured here with Liv Hill as Angie), at the Top Girls agency
A boozed-up Marlene waxes lyrical about Thatcherite Britain. Her sister looks daggers.
The political divide between them gives their sibling quarrel a blazing, Brexit-like passion. But it comes too late to redeem two hours of experimental stodge that has you wondering how classic this play really is.
The Other Palace, London Until Aug 3, 2hrs 10mins
I don’t know when you last had a Walnut Whip but they are generously doled out with assorted sweets in Toast, a warming slice of pop-up theatre.
Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation of TV chef Nigel Slater’s memoir-cum-novel starts with nine-year old Nigel helping his adoring mum make jam tarts. This Sixties suburban family try out an exotic new dish called spaghetti bolognese, disastrously overboiling the spag.
But then mum dies and paradise is over. Nigel’s cold father – he suspects Nigel of being a ‘nancy boy’ – lashes out at his son, and a brassy new woman moves in. Cue a bitter boy-versus-woman lemon meringue pie bake-off.
Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation of TV chef Nigel Slater’s (Giles Cooper) memoir-cum-novel starts with nine-year old Nigel helping his adoring mum (Lizzie Muncey) make jam tarts
Lizzie Muncey and Stephen Ventura play the parents, with Giles Cooper as Nigel. His teenage voyage of gay self-discovery has a note of acid that was welcome as I crunched on my complimentary Parma Violets.
The show radiates the young Slater’s passion for food and in particular the formative, Sixties cookery of Marguerite Patten.
A dramatically slim but rather poignant story of how recipes saved a lad starving from the absence of his mother’s love.
Where Is Peter Rabbit?
Theatre Royal Haymarket, London Until Apr 28, 1hr
Where is Peter Rabbit? You may well ask. Loosely combining five of Beatrix Potter’s stories, this is a bit of a muddle, and her most famous creation doesn’t arrive until near the end.
It all looks pretty, with an attractive watercolour-painting set and projections of the original illustrations. The animal puppets are gorgeous, and brought to life with real character and pizzazz by their period-costumed puppeteers.
There’s a wickedly dandyish fox, the endearing Jemima Puddle-Duck and a hoppity frog. The one human puppet is terrifying: a little girl who seems to have wandered in from a horror movie.
Where Is Peter Rabbit? Loosely combines five of Beatrix Potter’s stories, this is a bit of a muddle, and her most famous creation (above) doesn’t arrive until near the end
But overall, the show is far too fussy. The storytelling is confusingly spread between the character of Beatrix Potter, needless voice-overs by Miriam Margolyes and Griff Rhys Jones, and twee songs with lyrics by Alan Ayckbourn.
Perhaps overly faithful to the source material, the language is unhelpfully complicated and old-fashioned, while the character of Potter herself is a little pinched and priggish.