REVIEW: Kunene and the King (Ambassador Theatre) ★★★★★

Kunene and the King is a powerful play, dealing with the continuing shockwaves of the apartheid era in South Africa. Set in Johannesburg, it is 25 years since the end of apartheid when the first free elections were held that every South African citizen could vote in.

Jack Morris, a white South African, played by Anthony Sher, is a Shakespearean actor dying of liver cancer and Lunga Kunene, a black South African, played by Dr John Kani (who also wrote the play), arrives to be his live-in carer.

Across 3 acts, the first two in Jack’s home, the third in Lunga’s, we witness the subtle and not so subtle ramifications of the apartheid era. Jack’s instinct is to treat Lunga as “the help” a continuation of various black employees that he has had over the years.

Jack’s character is soaked in a deep racism developed by his life as a white man in apartheid ruled South Africa. Jack is a bitter old man, his wife has long since left him and remarried, taking their son.

Sustained only by his love of Shakespeare, he dreams of one last hurrah before the cancer kills him and has accepted a job playing King Lear. Jack sees the black man in his house as the person he can blame for everything that he perceives has gone “wrong” since the end of apartheid. Lunga deftly sidesteps many of the small barbs of Jack’s racism, intent on doing the job of providing medical care for Jack as he declines. However the chasm of their differing life experiences brings a variety of flash points throughout the play.

While Jack is bitter about everything he believes he has lost since the end of apartheid, Lunga is frustrated with everything that he has not gained, despite the promise of the Rainbow Nation.

Anthony Sher is utterly superb, making the repulsive Morris almost sympathetic, providing some lighter moments with the never-ending supply of gin bottles and the dancing response to his medication. Sher’s delivery of this shambling, sick man is so effective I thought he was going to collapse on stage. At times as the liver cancer takes hold, it is very hard to watch, but Sher is mesmerising, and you cannot take your eyes of him.

John Kani is astonishing as Lunga, the walking embodiment of the “forgive but never forget” mantra of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to guide South Africa into the post-apartheid era. He is a man whose life has been blighted by history, both the horror of the apartheid regime and the unexpected consequences of the fight against it.

Dr Kani is a fascinating man, born in South Africa, he is quoted in the programme saying, “I walk about with 51 years of apartheid”. He was the first black actor to play Othello in South Africa which resulted in a police interrogation as the Immorality Act of the time forbade love between blacks and whites, which he was presenting on stage every night.

This is a very complex situation to write about and the play brilliantly maintains the small feel of two people in a sitting room, while constantly threading the larger story through the drama. The nuances could be difficult for a writer who hasn’t lived this, the temptation could be to make the characters very obviously the embodiment of good versus evil but Kani delivers a much more subtle piece. While Jack Morris is hideous, Kani in his writing, allows him some humanity.

This is a beautiful piece of theatre, at times very funny while at others deeply unsettling. It is a masterclass from two phenomenal actors.

Reviewed by Emma Heath
Photo: Ellie Kurttz