Kunene and the King at Ambassadors Theatre
Kunene and the King is set in present-day South Africa, 25 years after the first post-apartheid democratic elections. Jack Morris (Antony Sher) is a white stage actor who has been cast as King Lear and is preparing for the role. He has also been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Lunga Kunene (John Kani), a black nurse, turns up at Jack’s house and announces that he’ll be living under the same roof to care for him round the clock. Jack is taken aback, as he had expected a white female nurse, and protests.
Their early interactions are small battles fuelled by pride. As the personalities of the two men emerge and their views come to the surface, the still palpable effects of apartheid are gradually delineated. The audience sees two opposing sides of that strained political system and its aftermath. But the imposed intimacy between the men reveals more similarities between patient and carer than first appears, and they realise that their love for Shakespeare is the common ground they are both happy to tread on.
Written by Kani himself, the play is a snapshot of a nation’s history with a personal imprint. Shakespeare unites the two actors just as it brings together the characters. Kani was the first black actor to star as Othello in South Africa, in 1987. Racial tensions were so high that Kani was at one point interrogated by the police about his leading role and the physical contact between Othello and Desdemona (played by Joanna Weiberg, a white actress). As for Sher, he has a rich Shakespearean repertoire and has recently played a fine King Lear for the RSC. The actors’ strong personal connection with the works of the bard gives added strength to the play.
Set mostly in Jack’s living room, a shrine to Shakespeare and theatre, the action starts a little tentatively but soon picks up as stage veterans Kani and Sher bring their characters’ relationship to life. Brief musical interludes, performed by vocalist Anna Mudeka, do not weave in so smoothly with the action but are a further reminder of the larger context. Kunene and the King offers valuable insight into a complex society and portrays a powerful and moving connection between two people who are acutely aware of their history and mortality.
Photo: Ellie Kurttz
Kunene and the King is at Ambassadors Theatre from 24th January until 28th March 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.