The Theatreguide.London Review
Kunene And The King
Ambassadors Theatre January-March 2020
The primary attraction
of this Royal Shakespeare Company production is the opportunity to
watch two personable and accomplished actors – John Kani and Antony
Sher – operating with the ease and assurance of polished veterans.
The play itself is involving and thought-provoking, but not
Kunene And The King
falls into a recognisable
sub-genre of two-character plays, that might be called the Patient
And Carer Odd Couple. Typically a curmudgeonly invalid is assigned a
carer that seems totally inappropriate – too young, too cheery, too
provocative of the patient's prejudices. And then, with the
inevitability of a romantic comedy, they bridge the gap and develop a
friendship that benefits both of them.
This variant on the
written by John Kani, sets the white patient and black carer in
modern South Africa, with both old enough to remember and have been
shaped by the apartheid era. So one new element Kani adds to the
formula – race, and specifically race in the South African context
– inevitably gives the play political and social resonances.
these larger issues keep pulling the play away from its natural focus
on the personalities of the two men, and there is a constant tension
in Kunene And The King between what sometimes feel like two separate
plays vying for our attention.
is a thematic and metaphoric invocation of Shakespeare. The patient,
who is dying of liver cancer, is an actor (not a particularly good
actor, judging from occasional demonstrations, contributing to the
play's underlying good humour).
He keeps himself alive
with what he
half-knows are impossible plans to act King Lear, and the two men
spend various moments in the play studying and discussing the text.
This takes them and the
play in two resonant directions. The black
man's cultural inheritance makes it difficult for him to understand
or accept some characterisations and plot points (He shouldn't give
away his inheritance), forcing the white man, and us, to consider why
we do accept them. And the parallels of a man facing the waning of
his powers serves as a guide to the dying actor.
For all this, the
play is still bound by the conventions of its genre and simply has
little room for originality. We know from the moment the two men meet
where the play is going, and it goes there with only the occasional
What is not inevitable,
and what is therefore
particularly satisfying for an audience, is the smooth authority and
confidence each of the actors brings to the play, in roles that may
very well have been written with them in mind.
Antony Sher is an
actor of broad effects and emotional nakedness, who movingly conveys
the anguish, heroism and occasional ridiculousness of the man
fighting physical pain and decay while trying desperately to deny his
own knowledge of the inevitable.
As a performer John Kani
quiet authority and dignity to his roles, while allowing the glimpse
of a tension within. His strongest moments in this play are not when
the man's accumulated anger at his patient's insults or racism in
general bursts out, but when we watch the character will himself to
regain control and become calm.
Racism is evil. The fact that South Africa's escape from one evil only opened it to others is tragic. But this is a play about two older men finding a friendship as they face the death of one of them.
And it is that personal story, and the skill with which the two actors bring it alive, that Kunene And The King is really about.
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