‘Kunene and the King’ review
Time Out says
South African great John Kani writes and stars opposite Antony Sher in this old-fashioned drama about the legacy of apartheid
When a black South African nurse turns up to look after an ageing white actor, the patient acts like he’s being robbed. He may be too frail to do much more than wave around an umbrella, but this old Shakespearean still possesses a ‘Complete Works’-worth of racial prejudice and an irascible fighting spirit, as well as a bellyful of literal spirits: he’s dying of liver cancer but won’t stop drinking.
Lunga Kunene, played by the show’s playwright John Kani, is the nurse and Jack Morris, played by Antony Sher, is his patient – and the king of the title. Jack is preparing to play Lear, and after finally accepting his other new role as Kunene’s patient, ropes the nurse into supporting his end-of-life fiction that he will ‘get better’ enough to play the part.
‘Kunene and the King’ is a bittersweet show – Kani doesn’t shy away from revealing Jack’s racism, both in his unthinking generalisations (‘you people’) and his sense of being the victim in a country he believes was taken away from him. Kunene begins sunny and likeable, but is given his due moments of righteous anger about the failures of post-apartheid South Africa too. Nonetheless, as you can guess from the opening moments, it does of course grow into a story of two very different people coming together in greater understanding and empathy, helped along by the universal wisdom of good ol’ Will Shakespeare.
It is very definitely theatre about theatre, and there are echoes of Lear throughout the play in the journey of a pompous, entitled man learning how to see the value in people through the humbling experiences of sickness and age. But even if ‘Kunene and the King’ is predictable in its shape and story arc, and feels a mite old-fashioned, it’s a good-hearted 90 minutes.
Kani’s writing tends towards the expositional, especially on the subject of politics, and the dialogue can lurch from theme to theme. But Janice Honeyman’s production has two really affectionate performances, laced with the melancholy of ageing and the fear of mortality. Sher is a shuffling, incontinent, grumpy old sod, but there are instances when we see an awareness of impending death almost physically grabbing him, his eyes widening, brightening; you almost feel the sudden cold sweat of dread. But both men find something softer, too, in a friendship that is somehow both tentative and tempestuous – and there are lovely moments where they recognise the shared joys in life, as well as the ridiculousness of its troubles.