From South Africa to Stratford, Shakespeare still transcends culture

By guest blogger JOHN KANI

Writer, actor, director and activist John Kani writes about how the iconic works of Shakespeare have weaved through his life growing up in South Africa to today.

John Kani holds the book of King Lear

First Encounters with Shakespeare

As a child growing up in Port Elizabeth South Africa, where the British landed in 1820, the education of a native child included the sonnets of William Shakespeare. Any learned person was considered civilised if they had an extensive knowledge of all Shakespeare’s plays. We walked around quoting lines from his famous texts - To be or not to be, Once more to the bridge, Love is not love which alters when alteration finds, Shall I compare thee to a summers day and on and on. Thus began my special relationship with Shakespeare.

Shakespeare and South Africa

Shakespeare’s influence continued to make itself felt throughout the long struggle to end Apartheid in South Africa. During Nelson Mandela’s time on Robben Island, a group of political prisoners managed to smuggle The Complete Works of Shakespeare into the prison by removing the front cover of the book and replacing it with the cover of the Hindu Prayer Book.

The Complete Works (now known as the Robben Island Bible) became the most exciting book circulating between senior members of the African National Congress and the Communist Party, right down to the ordinary political prisoners.

Performing Shakespeare in South Africa

Fast-forward to the year 1987, it was at this point that the Market Theatre decided to do a production of Othello. Janet Suzman, a renowned British (South African-born) actress was to direct the production. She approached me to play Othello. This was going to be the first time a black actor would play the role in South Africa. In the past, like in the UK, white actors like Laurence Olivier covered their faces and hands with make-up to play the Moor. This was largely because of a belief that there were no black actors good enough to play the role, let alone to understand Shakespeare. In South Africa, this was further compounded by the fact that the Immorality Act forbade love across the colour line. It was illegal for white and black people to be in love or have sex together. I agreed to play Othello on condition that I be the only black actor in the cast, and that we stick to the text as written.

We opened the play to rave reviews. Black people came from Soweto and other surrounding black townships of Johannesburg. This attracted the interest of the state secret police, who saw the play as a direct affront to South Africa’s racial segregation policies. White members of the audience gasped when I, as Othello, kissed Desdemona. Black members of the audience cheered and applauded. Some members of the white audience walked out of the theatre in disgust. We started getting bomb threats ̶ the bomb squad would arrive, order the audience to vacate the theatre and carry out a bomb sweep using police-trained sniffer dogs. When they didn’t find any bombs, the audience would be allowed back into the theatre and the performance would continue.

My crowning moment was when I was detained by the Special Branch of the police. A policeman interrogated me as to whether there was any communist plot to destabilise the Republic of South Africa by performing this play to mixed races. ‘No sir,’ I said. ‘This play was written by William Shakespeare in the 1600s.’ He asked if we’d changed anything. ‘ No, nothing was changed, we did it exactly as it was written.’ Then he said, ‘How come, in that scene when Desdemona comes to the court of the Duke, you took her into your arms and kissed her on her mouth? Nothing in the script tells you to do that. Also, just before you leave the scene, you held her against your body and kissed her again on her mouth.

As the policemen continued citing moments throughout the play where Othello showed how much he loved Desdemona, I realised the victory and the power of the arts: the policeman had actually read the play. I was so happy.

Returning to Shakespeare

Today, in these times of global upheaval and uncertainty, I find myself once again turning to my dear old friend, William Shakespeare.

My new play, Kunene and the King premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon last year, marking 50 years since the first democratic elections held in South Africa. The production transferred to London’s Ambassadors Theatre earlier this year but, like so many shows across the world, was cut short due to COVID-19. The inclusion of Kunene and the King, a South African story in the RSC’s 2019 program will remain the highlight of my five decade career.

Kunene and the King is about an uneasy friendship between a dying white South African actor cast as King Lear, and an African nurse who looks after him and sometimes helps him to learn his lines. Their relationship examines the very foundation on which our democracy is built. Shakespeare lives.

Scene from Kunene and the King

Created in Stratford

The Royal Shakespeare Company has become a mecca for artists all over the world. It is a place of pilgrimage for performers and audiences everywhere.

Throughout my time in Stratford, I have seen productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by a company from India, Othello by a company from Turkey, Hamlet and The Tempest from South Africa and, of course, the RSC Artistic Director, Gregory Doran’s production of King Lear in 2016, whose cast represented a truly non-racial reflection the people of this emerging society.

Sometimes I wonder what impact Africa had on Shakespeare. Plays like Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra and many others that explored the relationships among the different races would be made on the study of human behaviour.

That is the true wonder of Shakespeare. His plays transcend language, time, boarders, culture resulting in translation of his work into many languages across the world.

John is a South African born actor and writer who has appeared in Black Panther and The Lion King. His five-star reviewed play, Kunene and The King, was shown as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2019 program.


All views expressed in this blog are the views of the guest blogger and do not represent the views of the GREAT campaign.