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Review: Kunene and the King, at New Ambassadors Theatre

Poignant insight into two South Africas follows an actor and his end-of-life nurse as they battle ghosts of the past

20 February, 2020 — By Ali Bambridge

John Kani and Antony Sher in Kuene and the King. Photo: Ellie Kurtzz

TWENTY-FIVE years after the official ending of apartheid, John Kani’s Kunene and the King centres on the relationship between Jack Morris (Antony Sher), a white South African actor, and Lunga Kunene (Kani), his African end-of-life nurse.

Morris is a classical actor, dying from liver cancer and yet still holding onto the prospect of playing King Lear in an upcoming production. Kunene is the “sister” charged with helping him.

Kani, drawing on his own experience (he was the first black South African to play Othello), meditates on hope, despair, life and death. These are offered literally and metaphorically as the two characters battle ghosts of the past, present tensions and the clashing of cultures.

Kunene and the King offers a poignant insight into two South Africas: Morris represents the old guard and Kunene stands for a black Soweto that, despite liberation, continues to suffer from hardship and division.

Directed by Janice Honeyman, the play has musical accompaniment from Anna Mudeka. Her haunting vocals reinforce the men’s passion and pain and splits the action into three distinct stages.

We witness a shift in power as Morris, raging against the dying of the light, cedes control to Kunene.

It is stark and fitting that the once-celebrated Morris finds kindness in a township taxi as he travels from his home to that of his nurse in Soweto and a reconciliation that has echoes of the Lear he will never play. We watch the two men find understanding, if not exactly a truce.

Kunene and the King offers a portrait of a country and its people that, steeped in a bloody history like Lear himself, is ever hopeful of redemption.

Until March 28
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