STAGE REVIEW: Kunene and the King - at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until Tuesday, April 23, 2019.

THIS is a celebration by the Swan, or rather the RSC, to mark the 25 years since the ending of apartheid in South Africa and 250 years of the Shakespeare industry.

And what a scintillating commemoration it is thanks to John Kani’s exquisitely written new play which threads together the Rainbow Nation’s problems of the past, and now, in a moving and often amusing way.

Kunene and the King quickly becomes clear - as Lunga Kunene (played by Kani himself) is a retired nursing sister, now a carer, sent to the home of one of the country’s leading thespians, Jack Morris (Antony Sher) who desperately wants to play King Lear for one last time before he faces his final curtain.

Morris’ liver has been shot to pieces by copious amounts of gin!

Since South Africa’s first post-apartheid democratic elections a quarter of a century ago, we witness these two men from contrasting walks of life being thrust together through circumstances and begrudgingly coming to like each other as they reflect on the changes they have seen - and the progress on promises, if any.

Written by the South African actor, activist and playwright Kani, featuring here together with fellow South Africans Sher, and director Janice Honeyman, this play is in every essence a most important world premiere in which Kani’s words brilliantly and beautifully capture and portray the complex divides of race, class and politics in a remarkable way.

It’s brilliant, it’s beautiful, and times too when it is brutal and without doubt it is also totally captivating with two actors at the very top of their powers and with such stage presence they keep their audience totally enthralled.

Kunene is caring and compassionate, but prepared if provoked to erupt like Vesuvius, while Morris is utterly cantankerous with parts of him still hankering for the old days.

Through their meeting we have a nation’s story told in a compelling one hour and 45 minutes where there is confrontation between the two because of their polarising points of view on South Africa’s past and present.

Old grudges and blame are in both their original mindsets, but through their love of Shakespeare an uneasy friendship is steadily forged.

There are accusations from each about ‘your people’, the blood-letting, crime and corruption, and how many of the black population are still living in poverty as they wait for their ‘bright new future’.

Their divisions diminish through the love and the unifying power of William Shakespeare as Morris attempts to learn his lines for Lear and Kani relates his own experiences as Kunene reminisces about his school days and his delight when he and fellow pupils were allowed to explore and enact Julius Caesar, famously translated into Xhosa by WB Mdledle.

Kani, who was the first black South African to play Othello, refers in the programme notes to this first real introduction to the Bard in 1959. He says it was as if ‘the revolution of knowledge had come into our lives’.

As well as Shakespeare the two have something else in common as they are estranged from their children - but one lives in Soweto, the other in a large house in a leafy suburb of Johannesburg.

The two men provide memorable performances in this co-production by the RSC and Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre.

Kani’s Kunene is dignified and magnanimous, Sher in an oversized and dirty cardigan and shuffling here and there in his slippers, captures a man running short on time but still with the spirit for a sneaky swig from numerous bottles hidden in his living room.

Foes at first, then unlikely friends, the two characters bring matters fully to life so powerfully.

Sher and Kani, in their respective roles, are formidable actors who even summon up enough power between them to match a severe storm which marks a dramatic turn in events.

It’s a gripping and fitting tribute to the 25th anniversary of the ending of apartheid, but what a shame it runs only until late April.

It should have a much longer run to enable as many people as possible to enjoy such a special theatrical offering.