Where the scars of Apartheid run deep

Whisper #127

Kunene and the King is in Cape Town for its run at the Fugard Theatre. It’s a strange feeling to be back, having rehearsed here in February then taken a chilly trip over to Stratford for the UK run. We arrived excited to put the show into a new space and in front of an audience who live in the contemporary South Africa of the play.

The first task was reconfiguring the show for a new theatre. The Fugard’s main space is beautiful, with a wide end-on stage, whilst the Swan has a more unusual but equally lovely deep, narrow thrust stage. In some ways, the play feels less intimate without the audience surrounding it as they did at the Swan, but the Fugard stage also solves many of the sightline issues that can make directing for the Swan such a unique challenge.

Then there was language: here, we can put back some of the South African terms that baffled UK audiences. A pick-up truck could become a “bakkie” again. Floor polish becomes “stoep” polish, pronounced “stoop”, a word we changed when Stratford audiences were observed whispering to each other, “Shoe polish? I think he means floor polish…”

A man in a blue medical uniform hands a cup of tea to a man in a baggy grey cardigan.
Antony Sher and John Kani in Kunene and the King.
Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC Browse and license our images

I was most excited to feel how the audience reacted differently to the content of the play. In some ways, in a culture where the scars of apartheid run deep and people talk about race and difference in very blunt terms, the mixed audience here are less shocked by the more overt racism in the play. But more culturally specific, coded moments land much harder. When Jack casually tells Lunga to drink his tea from a green enamel mug from under the sink while Jack drinks from a china cup, there are audible gasps.

The show is clearly connecting with its home crowd, receiving full standing ovations every night. I feel very lucky to have travelled with it, and to have learned so much about this country through the eyes of our team in all their diversity of experience, and now through the eyes of South African audiences.

Nel Crouch

Nel Crouch

Nel Crouch is a director and writer. This is her second show as assistant director for the RSC, after The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich last year. She is improbably tall and, as such, splits her time between the UK and World’s Tallest Country™, The Netherlands. Find her on Twitter @nelcrouch

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