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BWW Review: KUNENE AND THE KING, Ambassadors Theatre


BWW Review: KUNENE AND THE KING, Ambassadors Theatre BWW Review: KUNENE AND THE KING, Ambassadors Theatre

An acclaimed classical actor is struggling with his terminal diagnosis while preparing for the role of a lifetime. When Lunga Kunene shows up to take on the job of live-in nurse, they're forced to settle their differences through their only shared passion: Shakespeare's works. Written by John Kani last year to mark the 25th anniversary since the first post-apartheid democratic elections, Kunene and the King swings between the political and personal while giving a heartfelt lecture on the Bard and his King Lear.

Royal Shakespeare Company pillar Antony Sher is the ageing Jack Morris and Kani himself is Sister Kunene, while Janice Honeyman directs the ideologically compelling but fairly still play. Kani analyses the permanent effects of Apartheid, political polarisation, racism, and the uniting power of art through the odd couple, painting the deflection of blame and indelible cultural clashes with uncompromising style. The script makes up for Honeyman's rather unchallenging direction and sparks a series of reflections on human nature and unfairness.

The resentment and hatred towards a structure built on repression and discrimination is vivid in the writing with the characters' pinning accountability onto each other's social group while at the same time refusing to be taken as their representatives. The respect and appreciation for one another surfaces from Morris's internalised bias and shared talks of internal violence, but their positions are unchanging throughout. Kunene and Morris are unwavering in their opinions but find common ground in their mutual investment in Shakespeare.

While Kunene helps the thespian with his lines in designer Birrie Le Roux's cosy living room, Kani sets off a broader metaphor between Lear and Morris that's a bit too on the nose to have any real impact. Honeyman even stages an exceptionally good thunderstorm in-between scenes with Mannie Manim and Jonathan Ruddick at lights and sound, respectively. However, Kunene and the King is far from the grand descent of a man, depicting the tragic stasis of one (and of an entire system) instead. From the moment we meet Morris struggling to learn Lear's "Never, never, never, never, never" to the end of the show, Sher offers a character whose change of heart is bound only by his condition. Kunene amuses him, so he allows him to keep his post.

On his side, the nurse is a headstrong and resolute man, unafraid to call his ailing patient out on his racism and to take a stand against his rationalised white supremacist attitude. While Kani is sophisticated and subtle in his performance, Sher's is quite actor-y in his. The choice to be overly dramatic and flashy with the delivery sometimes aides the mood, but it becomes rather trite at length when placed against the core issues. The industry jokes and boomer humour act as cushion between their explosive political views, but ultimately boil down to empty satire as death looms on a pain-ridden Morris as he grows more and more reliant on Kunene's care.

As a whole, Kunene and the King is an ambiguous play. Kani brings to the stage the staggering evidence of South Africa's scars with precision and aim, but it feels like Honeyman loses her grip on the dramatic tension of the script by letting its self-indulgent side overpower the sharp and crystal clear political critique. Sher fluctuates between his Lear and complete frailty, but Kani's finger is constantly and irrevocably on the pulse. Ultimately, the piece is essential viewing for its picture of post-Apartheid South Africa, but can be slightly too vain and inexhaustive for its own sake.

Kunene and the King runs at the Ambassadors Theatre until 28 March.

Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

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