Playwright and actor John Kani is in his element when he’s raking over the past, stirring up emotions that were expressed or repressed and comparing what we wanted to what we got. He does that stylishly in ‘Missing’, his latest play with the lead role of Robert written for himself. By LESLEY STONES.
The play explores the same themes as his highly successful Nothing But The Truth, exposing untold memories, buried bitterness and a clash of cultures that inevitably make us examine our own beliefs.
This time Kani’s character is a comrade in exile, living in Stockholm with his rich white wife Anna (Susan Danford). He’s been waiting for years to be summoned home to proudly take his seat in the new government, and hurt by a silence that implies he has been forgotten.
Missing is a wordy play and often feels a little stilted as the characters tell their stories to get the audience up to speed. As they recall memories or describe earlier meetings the mood becomes something of a history lesson.
Danford is excellent as the wife who fully supports her African husband, yet secretly fears the day when the life she loves will be uprooted by his recall home. Buhle Ngaba as their Swedish-born African princess daughter is also strong, capturing the angst of a girl caught between two cultures and trying to find an identity of her own.
Sadly Apollo Ntshoko as Peter Tshabalala felt too weak to carry his pivotal role as Robert’s former assistant now promoted to a government role. It needs a snake of an actor, a two-faced character with the guile to lie and argue boldly, and Ntshoko’s performance lacked that duplicity.
Director Janice Honeyman does a great job keeping the action flowing amid the onslaught of words, but on opening night the verbal exchanges felt a little stiff, not slick. The arguments between Ntshoko and Kani played out like an intellectual debate when it needs to be a fiery, pithy clash between the betrayer and the betrayed.
Missing explores the questions of whether you put your family or your country first, and your political ideals above your home comforts. It asks whether those ‘comforts’ are still comfortable when your heart is pulling in a different direction.
Kani litters his script with erudite quotations from struggle leaders, as well as exploring thoughts, fears and frustrations of his own. They’re clearly points that touch a nerve, prompting some spontaneous applause for his comments on the corrupt nature of our new government and how the old ideals have been replaced by power-crazed plundering.
There’s applause when he attacks snout-in-the-trough government ministers who remind him of the animals in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. More clapping when he brands them as ‘democratically elected dictators’. A cheer or two when he says: “I wanted revenge and I am asked to forgive.”
His wife gets some great lines too: “Someone needs to remind you the struggle is over and the future is waiting while you all wallow in the misery of the past,” she chides.
Kani undoubtedly has his finger on the pulse of South African sentiment, and once again proves that his forte is delivering a critical view of the present wrapped up in a story from the past. Let’s buy front row seats for our Animal Farm officials.
Missing runs at The Market Theatre until July 13. DM
Photo: Susan Danford, John Kani, Buhle Ngaba and Apollo Ntshoko the cast of “Missing” (Photo Baxter Theatre)
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle