Kunene and the King @ Ambassadors Theatre – Review

March 02, 2020

Kunene and the King is at the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End for a limited time. We were delighted to be invited along to see the performance and here are our thoughts.

Kunene and the King is a production from the Royal Shakespeare Company and has arrived in London for just nine weeks. Performed in association with The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, it is a head-to-head play that marks the 25th anniversary of the end of apartheid and co-stars its writer, Tony-award winning scribe John Kani alongside Sir Antony Sher, one of the greatest living thespians and a man who earned huge acclaim for his portrayal of King Lear in 2016.

That last fact is one that is well worth knowing heading in as it adds an extra layer to proceedings. Kunene and the King is set in South Africa and focuses on Sister Lunga Kunene (Kani) caring for Jack Morris, a famous actor with stage four liver cancer (Sher), and the racial undertones that underpin their conversation. Initially they appear to have little in common but as Jack learns his lines for King Lear, he finds that his carer takes a huge interest in the words of Shakespeare.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the play is too on the nose in its casting considering Sher played Lear just four years ago. Such criticism is justified but churlish; Kunene and the King is very much its own play and there is much to enjoy even if the audience is unaware of Sher’s provenance. Interestingly it is a production that runs through ninety minutes with no interval and with only three scenes, there is a lot to enjoy as the conversations evolve. It can be a tad slow at times but if there are any budding actors wishing to learn about their craft and/or Shakespeare then this is certainly a must-see!

At its heart Kunene and the King is a gently moving play that won’t necessarily elicit the sort of emotions it wants you to experience but is still a production that deserves to be seen. The writing is solid if not essential, but the performances are nothing short of excellent. In addition to this we particularly enjoyed the African singing that takes place before each scene as set changes occur. An intimate play, it is has found a perfect home in the Ambassadors Theatre; a venue which allows you to be drawn into the performance on stage.

The set is elegant and uncluttered; a traditional affair that presents us both Jack’s living room and Kunene’s kitchen. Seeing the way the other half live is always interesting and here it works particularly well with some nice touches that the audience will appreciate, especially from the bust of Shakespeare and Jack’s numerous methods of maintaining his alcoholism throughout.

Although rarely laugh out loud funny, Kunene and the King is a pleasing comic production that we richly enjoyed and is well worth seeing if one wishes to admire two acting legends at their prime.


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By Henry Fosdike