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Miriam Gibson

Review: KUNENE AND THE KING at The Ambassadors Theatre

In contemporary South Africa, Jack Morris is an aging alcoholic actor, recently diagnosed with liver cancer. He's dying, but determined to stay alive long enough to star in King Lear. Lunga Kunene is the professional nurse sent to care for him. Jack is white. Kunene is black.

John Kani as Lunga Kunene and Antony Sher as Jack Morris in Kunene and the King. Photo by Ellie KurttzJohn Kani as Lunga Kunene and Antony Sher as Jack Morris in Kunene and the King. Photo by Ellie Kurttz. © RSC

John Kani’s one-act play recounts three conversations between these two men, set a few weeks apart as Jack's conditions worsens, Kunene's patience wears thinner, and the two old men debate their similarities and differences. Kani also stars Kunene, while Sir Anthony Sher plays Jack. Both actors are South African by birth, which, in addition to Kani starring in his own work, adds a personal element to Kunene and the King. Jack and Kunene’s conversations explore language, culture, identity, death, Shakespeare, health, and the place of black and white communities in the new South Africa. Kunene comes across as affable and calm, although he harbours bitterness and questions about apartheid. Jack is cantankerous and proudly un-PC. Throughout the play, the two characters ask each other (and the audience) if they are speaking and seen as a person or as a representative of their race.

Jack is the more interesting character, and it's amusing to see Sher, recently celebrated in the RSC’s King Lear, perform the rehearsal process. Kunene's character is less defined- partly due to the script, which sees him change emotions confusingly quickly, and partly due to Kani's performance, which strays on the flat of reserved. There's no huge twists or revaluations in the story or the content of Jack and Kunene's conversations. Despite the heavy themes, the story also errs on reparative- the second and third scenes of the play both end with one of the characters yelling at the other to get out, then suddenly changing their mind.

Kani’s script is at its best when it uses Shakespeare and language to address wider themes. Jack’s performance of “Friends, Romans, countrymen” from Julius Caesar, with Kunene echoing in his native language of isiXhosa, is a powerful display of identity, the flexibility of language, and finding common ground. There are also moments of comedy in the discussion of Kunene’s official title of “Sister” and in Jack’s disdain for modern theatre direction. It’s these calmer, more wordy moments, rather than the political grandstanding, which make this production worth seeing.