It is amazing to think that a play written in the 17th century can seem so relevant, powerful and poignant. When people saw our production, they all said “It’s an African story”.
We had a lot of discussion about South African politics in the rehearsal room, with our director, the amazing Janice Honeyman. We talked about how change does not happen without resistance, how the cessation of hostilities does not automatically mean peace – it is a separate project – and the extraordinary call of Nelson Mandela and the Archbishop Tutu towards Truth and Reconciliation. It doesn’t mean that we forget, but we heal ourselves as we move forward. Tony was really struck by what he saw as the generosity of the African spirit not to seek revenge. There is a lot of thought about this in The Tempest.
Ten years later, we reunited for my play Kunene and the King, which also marked 25 years of South African democracy. Tony and I discussed how for many whites this looks like a disaster in terms of crime and economics, while for blacks who went through apartheid hell it was heaven. . Tony was determined to understand other points of view and bring them all to us through the drama.
I wrote the role of Jack Morris, a great classic actor who has cancer, for Tony, not knowing he would get sick. At the same time my younger brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and then I got an email from Tony in July of this year saying, âJohn, it’s like art imitates life. During the course of this piece, I lost my brother and then my best friend. But I still think of the last words of the play, suggested by Tony. Kunene felt that he was never seen as himself because he was black, but as an inferior person – like Caliban. Morris’s last words were “I see you.”
On Wednesday evening, the West End theaters will dim their lights in memory of Sir Antony Sher for two minutes at 7 p.m.