John Kani, The Tempest

Published: Wednesday, April 8, 2009 15:20 | Interview by Mariam Manneh
John Kani (Caliban) and Antony Sher (Prospero) John Kani (Caliban) and Antony Sher (Prospero)

Dr Bonsile John Kani is a distinguished South African actor, director and playwright. He was born in 1943 in New Brighton, South Africa. He is touring the UK, and performing in The Tempest as Caliban. It is proving to be a vibrant production with many South African influences – an innovative collaboration between the Royal Shakespeare Company and South Africa’s Baxter Theatre - featuring a multicultural cast.


Kani describing his initial involvement with the play said:

“When I heard that Janice Honeyman (director) and Antony Sher (Prospero) were working on The Tempest, I didn’t think that there was even a question about mebeing part of this production. I was busy writing my new play and then the phone rang, and Mannie Manim (who runs the Baxter Theatre Centre) said ‘They’re very interested in you playing Caliban’. So I asked Mannie if Tony was playing Prospero? When he said 'yes’, my immediate thought was ‘fantastic’. I’ve always wanted to work with Tony. We have had an appointment to work together for many years, but we could never make it, because we were both too busy.”


Referring to The Tempest Kani affirms he read the play in the context of post-Apartheid South Africa. On the centrality of Caliban as a character he says:

“It’s almost like Caliban is wandering on Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned) and that is where Prospero lands. Ultimately he leaves Caliban with his island. We are aware in the epilogue that Prospero and all of them sail away, so we assume that he [Caliban] is wandering senseless and mindless when he’s spent his day’s labours building a beautiful cell with comfort. For instance, in the end he says ‘I will be wise hereafter, and seek for grace.’ Maybe he has learned from this experience. Maybe when the next shipwreck comes, he’ll say ‘next island, please. Don’t even land. I’m living here – next island please.“


Talking about the difficult relationship between Caliban and Prospero, Kani explains:

“Because, you see, between me and Prospero, it’s personal. It’s gone beyond just the political relationship of master/servant. I nearly violated the honour of his daughter when he trusted me, and we slept in the same cell. So he holds that personal grudge against me which he has to let go. In the last two lines he [Prospero] says ‘You too, as you be pardoned for your crimes, I ask you your indulgence to set me free’, and I let him go. So there is an attempt, a movement towards forgiving each other.”


Ariyon Bakare and Janet Suzman in Dream of The Dog John Kani performed alongsie Sher as Caliban, Prospero's subordinate, with Atandwa Kani performing as Ariel
- Picture: Geraint Lewis

On his actor son Atwanda Kani’s performance as Ariel Kani senior says:

“His mum was in the audience on press night and I couldn’t help saying ‘I’m proud.’ He has something in him that is his own. Now I believe it didn’t come because he wanted to be like his father. It’s something he wanted to do. That relieves me.”


On working with Anthony in the future Kani says:

“I’m sure we’ll find another Shakespeare that we can do together. With his experience and my experience and my age and his age and the umbilical cord that ties us to this one part of Africa - South Africa - I’m black and he’s white and we’ve been part of the struggle for liberation - to find those common grounds and to say ‘what do we talk about today?’ How do we tell the stories of the past without hurting each other or reminding each other of how we’ve hurt each other? But we are going to find something in the future. We’ve promised each other that now that we’ve started we will periodically find something we can do together.”


Kani previously performed in Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2006. The respected actor defines in a nutshell the universality of Shakespeare’s works when he says:

“The audiences embraced us. I met a lady who said ‘this is my nineteenth Hamlet. Today I understood things I didn’t understand.’ And I know it’s going to happen when people say ‘I’ve seen The Tempest so many times but what you’ve done to it is so different’. It just shows how Shakespeare is a world citizen. His culture is the culture of the human race.”


The Tempest is on tour until 25 April 2009




Related links

Review of The Tempest by Karla Williams
Royal Shakespeare Company
Baxter Theatre Company




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