Review - Kunene and the King at the Ambassadors Theatre
Two giants of South African theatre, one who stayed and one who left but both of whom have garnered international reputations, join forces for this warm and moving play that's partly about the theatre that both have sprung from and partly about the legacy of apartheid that formed them, too. John Kani, now 77, is the one who stayed, though he has travelled frequently, to both London and Broadway, including appearances as an actor and co-author with Athol Fugard and the late Winston Ntshona of the plays Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island; Antony Sher, now 70, is the one who left to become a star player at both the National and the RSC, where he is an honorary associate artist and most recently (before this play) played the title role in King Lear in 2016.
Now, in Kani's own play, Sher is once again an elderly actor preparing to play King Lear; it adds weight that he's already done it, so this isn't just the improbable ambition of a man facing a terminal liver disease diagnosis who has one last dream he wants to fulfill (and, according to the plot here, has a booking to do so at Cape Town's Artscape Theatre). But despite his condition, he's still hiding bottles of liquor all around his apartment, when John Kani's kind, dignified male nurse Lunga Kunene arrives to look after him.
But this is no cosy meeting of elderly characters from different races who have needs to meet in each other, like that of Driving Miss Daisy in which an initially hostile working relationship turns into real friendship when a black chauffeur comes to work for a resentful Deep South American white matriarch, but a questioning and uneasy exploration of the dynamics of the racial tensions that these two men, both from the same generation, were forged in and the impact it has on them today. But it's also about the solace each of them finds in exploring Shakespeare (as they rehearse the play together), their respective rages against racial injustice and mortality and the acts of personal kindness that each brings to the other.
In other words, it's a play rich in humanity and experience, and it is rewarded by performances that match it note for alternately anguished and uplifting note. There may be occasional lapses into sentimentality in the writing, but Kani and Sher are both too astute as actors to over-indulge it. Both are masters of their craft, and Sher - sporting a large button-down cardigan over an inflated belly - feels like he has also undergone a physical transformation to play this shabby, distressed figure.
Kani, meanwhile, is simply magnificent in standing his ground against the bullying figure of his patient; this is one of the most tender, beautiful performances currently on the London stage. During scene changes, they are joined by a stunning singer-musician Anna Mudeka.
As directed by Janice Honeyman in a co-production between the RSC and Cape Town's Fugard Theatre, this is an international theatre collaboration that's a miniature gem. A play about human dignity and outreach, it dignifies the West End, too.
Kunene and the King tickets are available now.