REVIEW: Kunene and the King, Ambassadors Theatre, London ✭✭✭

Julian Eaves reviews John Kani’s play Kunene and the King currently being presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Ambassadors Theatre.

Kunene and the King review Ambassadors Theatre London
John Kani and Antony Sher in Kunene and the King. Photo: Ellie Kurtz

Kunene and the King
Ambassadors Theatre
29th January 2020
3 Stars
Book Tickets

Plays written by actors can be fascinating things.  Some actors, like Harold Pinter or William Shakespeare, were rather good at them.  Others have had more sporadic success, and one such is the South African veteran, John Kani.  Many years ago, he had a run-away hit with his anti-apartheid piece, ‘Sizwe Banzi Is Dead’.  Now, he returns to the stage with another work meditating upon the troubles and tribulations of his homeland.  It is an interesting work, with a good few well-turned lines in it, and a sizeable part for himself and another actor – a role filled here by his countryman, Antony Sher – and it’s worth going to for the opportunity of seeing these two fine actors doing good work.

Anthony Sher
John Kani and Antony Sher. Photo: Ellie Kurtz

However, the dramatic structure does not here seem to be one of Kani’s great strengths.  South African director Janice Honeyman is respectful of the text and blocks it all out in a very naturalistic manner; their fellow national, Birrie Le Roux’ realistic sets do the same.  Yet, the script sets up an expectation in the first scene (or act?) of this 96-minute drama played without an interval, if not without two scene-changing interruptions, that Sher’s character, famed South African actor Jack Morris, is learning the part of King Lear, and has a deadline a few months hence of playing it.  The complication is, he has stage 4 cancer, and Kani, Lunga Kunene of the title, arrives as his live-in ‘terminal’ nurse to see him through as much of this as he can before he has to be carted off to the hospital for the conclusion of the illness’ progress.  At the very least, the future does not bode particularly rosily for Morris’ forthcoming production of Lear!  (In an interesting twist, Sher is also playing Lear in the current rep of the RSC, which is presenting this play, too.)

Ambassadors Theatre
John Kani and Antony Sher. Photo: Ellie Kurtz

If you think that is going to be held onto as a theatrical framing device, though, you are in for a disappointment.  Many other themes wander into Kani’s script and elbow the play out of the way – in every sense.  Also, Kunene seems to have – well – professional difficulties in relating to his charge, who – it has to be seen and heard – often behaves appallingly.  As a metaphor for the inability of the whites and blacks in South African to get on with each other, it’s as obvious as it can be.  But this does generate some of the toughest language: ‘The whites voted for Mandela, because they thought he would protect them from the anger of the blacks’, is probably the strongest statement made in the text, and it is wonderfully memorable.  But the rest of the play lives in the shadow of moments like that.

John Kani
John Kani and Antony Sher. Photo: Ellie Kurtz

As with ‘Three Sisters’ currently at the Lyttleton, the now de rigeur African singer makes a few appearances too, Anna Mudeka singing in a local language – this one, I assume, is Xhosa, but with no translations provided, I couldn’t tell you what she sings about, nor indeed what compels her to manifest herself.  The rest of the creative team is also from South Africa, one way or another, with conventional lighting by Mannie Manim and sound by Jonathan Ruddick, and music composed by Neo Muyanga.  As a piece of theatre, it plays safe, everything is done well but there’s nothing remarkable about it, beyond the casting of two superlative veterans in the speaking roles.

Until 28 March at Ambassadors Theatre, London.

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