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Catching up with: Antony Sher

Ten years ago, Sir Antony Sher, KBE returned to South Africa to join up with Dr John Kani, Janice Honeyman and Mannie Manim for the celebrated ‘African’ production of The Tempest at the Baxter Theatre. Now, Sher is back to partner with John Kani in Kunene and the King. This moving and funny two-hander, written by Kani, is a fitting tribute to the 25th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections. Honeyman and Manim will once again be directing and lighting the production, respectively. Kunene and the King comes to The Fugard Theatre from 30 April 2019, hot off its world premiere from 21 March to 23 April at The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in England.

Antony Sher Kunene and the King theatre Fugard John Kani
John Kani and Antony Sher in rehearsal for Kunene and the King PHOTO Claude Barnado

The celebrated 2009 production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest was hailed both here and in the UK as a wonderful, true ‘African’ adaptation. The great success of the production, a joint venture between the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and the Baxter Theatre Centre in Cape Town, earned high praise for ‘reinterpreting the Bard’s valedictory play as a study of the end of apartheid.’ It made visually astounding use of a giant puppet serpent, derived from Zulu cosmology, while the white clay streaking Ariel’s body alluded to Xhosa circumcision ceremonies. There were giant Malian puppets and fertility dolls. The spirits haunted the island that Prospero had made his home – a direct connection to tribal traditions and the belief in the power of ancestors that is so much part of Africa. This was a production at the Baxter Theatre that nobody who saw it will ever forget.

Antony Sher Kunene and the King theatre Fugard John Kani
This book, Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries, is Sher’s account of researching, rehearsing and performing one of Shakespeare’s greatest roles. His honest, illuminating and witty commentary provides an intimate, first-hand look at the development of his King Lear and the production as a whole. Also included are a selection of his paintings and sketches, many reproduced in full colour. Image supplied

     At the time, Sher was quoted on the RSC website as saying: ‘I’m extremely pleased to be working with Janice Honeyman again – she directed me in the RSC production of Fugard’s Hello and Goodbye. It’s also been a lifelong ambition of mine to be onstage with the legendary South African actor John Kani. So this feels like all my dreams coming true.’
     Certainly, at the time it must have been a dream come true and a tremendous welcome home for the Jewish boy who left Sea Point in Cape Town for London in 1968, after completing his compulsory military service.
     At the time of our interview, rehearsals for Kunene and the King were still in their early stages and we are very thankful to Sher for making time available to answer some of our questions and to share with us his views on working once more on a special production in his hometown.

Creative Feel: Looking at the pictures from the early rehearsals, we are excited to see you and John Kani perform together again. What should we expect from Kunene and the King?
Antony Sher: Well, it’s a play that John Kani first talked to me about in 2009 when we did The Tempest together. At that stage, he only had the vague idea of a play but he did mention it to me and he said that he would like to write a play for the two of us and just sketchily outlined some of what the play was to become. And then I never heard a word until the beginning of last year when I suddenly got an email from him saying, ‘remember I mentioned writing a play for us? Well, I’ve written it. Can I send it to you?’ And so I said, ‘yes of course.’

Antony Sher Kunene and the King theatre Fugard John Kani
Year of the Fat Knight is Sher’s account – splendidly supplemented by his own paintings and sketches – of researching, rehearsing and performing one of Shakespeare’s best-known and most popular characters. Image supplied

     To my delight, when I received the play I found this fascinating story about two older South Africans, one white, one black, thrown together in a situation because the old white man – who is an actor – has got cancer and the black man is his carer, who is looking after him. It also gives the opportunity for the two old men to talk about South Africa 25 years after democracy came here. That sounds very political, well it is, but what John has done is make it very human so that these two old chaps argue and fight and make one another laugh and eventually learn to respect one another and learn about one another because, for both of them, it’s a new experience to be this close to someone of another race. My character, the old actor, although you would expect actors to be very liberal, it gradually emerges that, actually, he has quite reactionary views. So he goes on a big learning curve in getting to know Kunene.
     It’s a very honest play because it’s human, the characters have both got faults, they’ve got weaknesses and strengths and those lovely conflicts in this kind of situation, because the white man is still in a position of power, because he’s hiring this carer and, as I say, he’s not completely comfortable with a black man actually having to live in his house. On the other hand, he’s totally reliant on this man because he’s very ill and this man is an experienced nurse and carer.

To read more on our exclusive interview with Antony Sher, from his early days, to his success, politics and personal life, purchase the April 2019 issue of Creative Feel or, to continue supporting our role in the South African arts and culture sector, subscribe to our monthly magazine in digital or print format from only R180.00 per year.

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