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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Kunene And The King
Ambassadors Theatre   January-March 2020

The primary attraction of this Royal Shakespeare Company production is the opportunity to watch two personable and accomplished actors – John Kani and Antony Sher – operating with the ease and assurance of polished veterans. The play itself is involving and thought-provoking, but not especially original.

Kunene And The King falls into a recognisable sub-genre of two-character plays, that might be called the Patient And Carer Odd Couple. Typically a curmudgeonly invalid is assigned a carer that seems totally inappropriate – too young, too cheery, too provocative of the patient's prejudices. And then, with the inevitability of a romantic comedy, they bridge the gap and develop a friendship that benefits both of them.

This variant on the pattern, written by John Kani, sets the white patient and black carer in modern South Africa, with both old enough to remember and have been shaped by the apartheid era. So one new element Kani adds to the formula – race, and specifically race in the South African context – inevitably gives the play political and social resonances.

But these larger issues keep pulling the play away from its natural focus on the personalities of the two men, and there is a constant tension in Kunene And The King between what sometimes feel like two separate plays vying for our attention.

Somewhat more successfully integrated is a thematic and metaphoric invocation of Shakespeare. The patient, who is dying of liver cancer, is an actor (not a particularly good actor, judging from occasional demonstrations, contributing to the play's underlying good humour).

He keeps himself alive with what he half-knows are impossible plans to act King Lear, and the two men spend various moments in the play studying and discussing the text.

This takes them and the play in two resonant directions. The black man's cultural inheritance makes it difficult for him to understand or accept some characterisations and plot points (He shouldn't give away his inheritance), forcing the white man, and us, to consider why we do accept them. And the parallels of a man facing the waning of his powers serves as a guide to the dying actor.

For all this, the play is still bound by the conventions of its genre and simply has little room for originality. We know from the moment the two men meet where the play is going, and it goes there with only the occasional slight diversion.

What is not inevitable, and what is therefore particularly satisfying for an audience, is the smooth authority and confidence each of the actors brings to the play, in roles that may very well have been written with them in mind.

Antony Sher is an actor of broad effects and emotional nakedness, who movingly conveys the anguish, heroism and occasional ridiculousness of the man fighting physical pain and decay while trying desperately to deny his own knowledge of the inevitable.

As a performer John Kani brings a quiet authority and dignity to his roles, while allowing the glimpse of a tension within. His strongest moments in this play are not when the man's accumulated anger at his patient's insults or racism in general bursts out, but when we watch the character will himself to regain control and become calm.

Racism is evil. The fact that South Africa's escape from one evil only opened it to others is tragic. But this is a play about two older men finding a friendship as they face the death of one of them.

And it is that personal story, and the skill with which the two actors bring it alive, that Kunene And The King is really about.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Kunene And The King - Ambassadors Theatre 2020
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