Review: Kunene and the King, Ambassadors Theatre
PUBLISHED: 15:50 31 January 2020
South Africans John Kani and Antony Sher are superb in a two hander that excavates the wounds of Apartheid and the pain of growing old
South African playwright and actor Dr John Kani's relationship with Shakespeare started in the late 1950s. His deep understanding, wonder and affection for the Bard permeate this deeply affecting new play.
Jack Morris (played brilliantly by fellow South African Antony Sher) is defined by his profession as an actor. Suffering from advanced liver cancer, his life is tumbling out of control and into indignity.
He pays for a nurse to tend him and the uniformed Sister (all nurses get called sister in Jo'Berg) Lunga Kunene arrives.
Morris is learning his lines for the lead in a production of King Lear that he will probably never play.
They get to know each other and spar about limits (Morris self medicates with gin stashed in myriad hiding places around his grubby flat), what each expects of the other and what is taboo.
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They discover a mutual love of Shakespeare and the text becomes the backdrop for their conversations. Over a glorious, and at times challenging, ninety minutes they examine identity, education culture, history, race and class and, of course, theatre.
Both are facing up to their own demons: Morris with his imminent mortality and Kunene (played with relaxed precision by Kani) with the personal impact of apartheid's injustices and his relationship with white people.
The themes could have made for a deeply depressing evening, but the piece is suffused with joyous laugh-out-loud moments - Morris adopting the role of I, Actor and, annoyingly, calling Kunene "Dharling".
Initially claiming to be apolitical, he eventually concedes how good things were under the old regime and how "... we wanted to ride it to the end."
The final scene in Kuni's house is a masterclass of pathos and physical comedy as they assert and seal their mutual respect and affection.
This production coincides with the end of apartheid 25 years ago. It's a timely reminder of the horrors of a regime based on racial superiority/inferiority as well as a tender commentary on two men growing old.