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The Ambassador’s Theatre plays host the RSC’s West End transfer of Kunene And The King until 28 March 2020. Previously, the show ran in the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2019.
Kunene And The King, written by and starring John Kani, is a two-man play exploring the relationship between two South African men who grew up on different sides of the horrors of apartheid.
John Kani is known for his writing collaborations on Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and The Island in the 1970s both of which put a focus on apartheid and criticised the systemic oppression of black South Africans. Now 25 years later, the shadows of South Africa’s past are felt in every facet of Kani’s Kunene And The King as these two characters grow closer.
Jack Morris, a white man in his 70s, is a veteran Shakespearean actor preparing to take on the role of King Lear and is not about to let a diagnosis of stage four liver cancer stop him. He takes on a live-in nurse to help him manage the illness while he learns his lines but does not expect Sister Lunga Kunene, a black man of a similar age.
The men couldn’t be more different, experiencing the void between black and white South Africans even 25 years after the end of apartheid. Living together in such close quarters for weeks gets them talking about family, their youth and growing old in a modern South Africa. It’s not always civil though, with discussions about race and health sometimes enraging both men.
For these unlikely friends, King Lear is set to bring them together as Jack determinedly gets ready for the role despite his worsening health.
Lunga Kunene, the Kaiser Chiefs supporting nurse from Soweto, is performed by the play’s writer John Kani. Eagle-eyed audience members may also recognise him as T’Chaka from Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War and Black Panther.
Antony Sher is the perfect choice to play Jack Morris, as a Shakespearean actor himself who has played the likes King Lear and Hamlet on stage before.
Though a two-man play, Lungiswa Plaatjies provides indigenous music and song, utilising the clicks of the Xhosa people throughout the performance. The Cape Town singer has also performed for the RSC in the past, in The Tempest.
The two leads hold a sense of post-apartheid tension throughout the entire play, evoking the imbalance of power along racial lines that are still ever-present in South Africa. This feeling is crystalised in the moment Lunga Kunene refuses to sleep in Jack Morris’ servant quarters, from when he kept a maid, and insists on sleeping in the house as an equal. This is just the start of a series of conversations between the men that shatter Jack’s biases after spending the majority of his life being treated as a superior citizen in South Africa.
Shakespeare lovers can expect lots of on-stage discussion about The Bard, with Jack introducing Lunga to the plot and themes of King Lear. The exchange is not one-sided, Lunga has a thing or two to teach the seasoned actor from his own Shakespearean schooling under apartheid. This culminates in the pair performing the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech from Julius Caesar both in the original English and isiXhosa.
Conversations are never left to run on too long, interrupted by bouts of anger, frustration or sadness either from Lunga at systemic racism or from Jack at his declining health. These moments pull you up short just in the middle of the characters connecting, serving as a reminder that the past they spent in different worlds cannot be forgotten.
★★★★★ “John Kani beautifully captures the complex divides of race, class and politics…” – The Guardian
★★★★ “It’s electrified by its clear-eyed political reckoning, by passion and by fine performances” – The Times
★★★★ “Kani’s writing remains deeply incisive, full of both anger and understanding” – The Stage
★★★★ “Director Janice Honeyman…is blessed with the play’s author, John Kani, and recent RSC Lear Antony Sher…two terrific performances…” – WhatsOnStage
Kunene And The King runs for 1 hour and 36 mins with no interval.
Tickets to Kunene And The King are now available through Ticketmaster.co.uk.