THEATRE REVIEW: Kunene and The King ★★★★

Kunene and the King
The Ambassadors Theatre, London
Friday 24th January - Saturday 28th March 2020

There’s something quite poignant and tender to John Kani’s production of Kunene and the King; It’s 2019 where we meet Jack Morris (Antony Sher), a white South African actor who is preparing to take the role of any actors dream, King Lear. He is in constant pain from his ongoing battle with Lung Cancer, and at the start of the production we are treated to the first interaction he has with his nurse, Sister Lunga Kunene (John Kani). At the heart of this tale is a friendship which has its fair share of differences thrown between the two, but is connected between the two with their love of William Shakespeare. 

Having been taught Julius Caesar as a child in school, in his native language of Xhosa, Kani has semi-biographically wrote a play that streams truth and energy into the piece; Having both worked together on the 2009 RSC’s production of The Tempest, both Kani and Sher share an equal understanding and clear love for eachother on stage that doesn’t go unnoticed. Unsure whether the part of Jack was specifically written for Sher, the part undoubtedly is up there with one of his best performances to date personally, and quite possibly in the West End at this moment; Kani has written Jack as strong-minded, cheeky, but stubborn actor who we as an audience find hard to find hatred towards, even though his views may seem outdated towards those of a different ethnicity. To watch Jack deteriorate throughout the play with Stage 4 Lung Cancer, a terminal disease at this rate, is at times painful to watch, even more so the closer I believe you are to the action. 

These particular subjects it must be said is handled with care, and has obviously come from real situations which Kani has faced during his time living in South Africa. There’s even a beautiful moment where Jack has travelled to Lunga’s house and is retelling a story of being accused of wizardry in the back of a taxi filled with eighteen people, and having personally traveled to the Easten Cape of South Africa back in 2016 for three months, I’ve never heard words so vividly then take me back to a place with so much truth such as this. Kani’s performance is touching to witness, and the whole predicament of Jack’s upcoming portrayal of The King must seem even more harrowing and a performance that must be given justice considering Kani’s real experience with Lung Cancer within his close family. Lunga’s remarkable stature and care towards Jack despite their differences and constant arguments revealing a play set upon the goodness of humanity. 

When Lunga translates silliloques within King Lear alongside Jack, they make us feel like we are a part of the conversation as they look out across the auditorium. Janice Honeyman’s direction in this sense is very subtle, which flows effortlessly throughout and never becomes jarring, whilst Anna Mudeka, a Zimbabwean-British musician, treats us to what sounds like native traditional music from South Africa to open and close the production, as well as in-between whilst the scene changes are in full swing; Her progetory, rhythm, and expression within these moments bring you to ease and transport you into a world between our two protagonists. 

Overall, Kunene and The King is a clear poetic and moving masterpiece in writing, with a depiction of a friendship between two men who with their love of Shakespeare share a bond of trust and love for each other, which will have you leaving with a heavy heart of restoration within the goodness of humanity.


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