Kunene And The King Explores Legacy Of Apartheid

Kunene and the King, Ambassadors Theatre ★★★☆☆

By Neil Dowden Last edited 49 months ago

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Kunene And The King Explores Legacy Of Apartheid Kunene and the King, Ambassadors Theatre 3
Photo: Ellie Kurttz

John Kani’s Kunene and the King explores the legacy of apartheid in South Africa, a quarter of a century after it ended. The play shows how a black man and a white man with wildly contrasting life experiences develop a close bond despite the continuing consequences of decades of institutionalised racism.

Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, celebrated classical actor Jack Morris discharges himself from hospital in Johannesburg, but is at first dismayed to find his at-home nurse Lunga Kunene is black. Self-medicating with gin, Morris is in bad shape but determined to prepare for the role of King Lear, with Kunene helping him, in an intimate relationship that sometimes flares into conflict.

Photo: Ellie Kurttz

The two elderly men from different cultural backgrounds unite in a shared passion for Shakespeare. But Morris’s deteriorating condition threatens his stage farewell, while his residual racism alienates Kunene despite his innate humanity.

Although the play touches on notorious events from South Africa’s past and suggests ongoing racial divisions in society, there is not enough tension in the two men’s interactions to give weight to the politics. It’s a bit too cosy, with a sentimental ending. And the implied parallel between Morris and Lear’s journey of self-education is not sustained strongly enough.

Photo: Ellie Kurttz

The real strength of this RSC show, directed by Janice Honeyman, lies in its well-matched performances. Antony Sher has the showier part as the larger-than-life, half-pissed Morris, alternately patronising and pleading, forced to confront his own mortality and guilt. Kani is more restrained as the compassionately professional Kunene, who only really shows his burning anger when in his own home in the Soweto township. The two actors bounce off each other beautifully in an engaging duologue.

Kunene and the King, Ambassadors Theatre, West Street, WC2H 9ND. Tickets £25-£75, until 20 March 2020

Last Updated 01 February 2020