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John Kani's Kunene and the King marks 25 years since apartheid ended in 1994. The show opened to five-star reviews in at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, then transferred to Cape Town's Fugard Theatre and now impresses on the West End.
The play does a lot with a little: two characters tackle the enormous complexity of South African racial segregation, reflecting on the changes of the last quarter-century. This political clout is offset by tenderness, as the 90 minute drama gives an immensely human portrait of pride, power, pain and kindness.
Writer John Kani (Black Panther, The Island, Sizwe Banzi is Dead), stars as Lunga Kunene, a live-in nurse caring for a terminally ill patient who is too stubborn to stay in hospital. Prolific stage actor and seasoned Shakespearan actor Antony Sher is perfectly cast as Jack Morris, a famous thespian who’s trying to ignore the agony of liver cancer by preparing to play King Lear.
Director Janice Honeyman infuses the production with atmosphere by punctuating scenes with music and song. And Birrie Le Roux’s intimate but detailed stage design builds an apartment on the outskirts of Johannesburg, where the two men negotiate medication, line-learning and their very different life experiences.
John Kani as Lunga Kunene (left) and Antony Sher as Jack Morris (right). Photo: Ellie Kurttz
The cultural rifts between Lunga and Jack are immediately obvious as racial discrimination, suspicion and arch references to ‘Your People’ shape the discourse. But an unlikely bond comes from a shared enthusiasm for Shakespeare. There’s a remarkable scene where Lunga recites the Xhosa language translation of Julius Caesar, followed by Jack performing the same lines in English.
Shakespeare offers insight into both the political and the personal cores of the play, from the political skew of the literature curriculum during the apartheid to the study of privelege and suffering that plays out as the men go through King Lear.
Kani’s writing is thoughtful but still forceful, as gentle comedy and compassionate comradeship are offset with bitter flashes of prejudice and desperation. Combined with powerful performances from two actors at the top of their game, the story makes for a striking and memorable piece of theatre.
|What||Kunene and the King, Ambassadors Theatre review|
|Where||Ambassadors Theatre, West Street, London, WC2H 9ND | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
24 Jan 20 – 28 Mar 20, 7:00 PM – 8:36 PM
|Price||£5 - £80|
|Website||Click here for more information and tickets|