Kunene and the King and The Fall in the Age of #MeToo, #FeesMustFall and Black Lives Matter

  • David Schalkwyk


This article pairs and compares John Kani’s play Kunene and the King (in which Kani has starred opposite Antony Sher) and the collaborative Baxter Theatre production The Fall. Kunene and the King – devised in South Africa, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, exported to Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre in May 2019, and revived at London’s Ambassadors Theatre in the West End in early 2020 – employs King Lear as a scaffold. It is a two-hander about race in contemporary South Africa: an encounter between two very different men, who find themselves trying to span the gap between black and white. The argument presented in this article is that the play’s ostensible realism is a screen, behind which lies complex metaphorical and allegorical depth. Whereas Kunene and the King attempts to deal with the present by evoking and working through memory and history located in two separate, exemplary consciousnesses, The Fall, though narrated in the past tense, is rooted in the necessities of the present. The latter play is a response to, and a re-telling of, the student protests of 2015–16; as the characters finally split along differentiated lines of regret, anger and aspiration, #RhodesMustFall is challenged by #MeToo. In this way, The Fall exposes a fatal silence between the two men of Kunene: women have no voice in Kani’s play. The article ends with a coda re-situating the two plays under discussion in the context of Black Lives Matter and other protests in 2020.