Kunane and the King (Ambassadors)

John Kani and Antony Sher last trod the RSC boards together in The Tempest in 2009, where Sher was something of a reserved Prospero and Kani a free-spirited Caliban. Now somewhat older, these two titans of the stage, both South African by birth, meet again in Kani’s new play.

Kunane is the senior nurse sent to care for Jack, a terminally ill cancer patient and successful actor who is preparing to play Lear. A black man in a position of service to a white man has political undertones in an uneasy, post-apartheid country, of course, but this has been explored many times before.

Sher’s paunchy alcoholic spouts politically incorrect platitudes and yearns for the old days, which “were good”, before “FW betrayed us”. It’s fun to watch him as the thespian whose body and mind are failing him, still finding the strength to interpret and translate the Bard.

John Kani and Antony Sher in Kunane and the King
John Kani and Antony Sher in Kunane and the King

Kani has incredible stage presence and brings pride, subservience and simmering anger to his Sister Kunene. Across the three scenes he is the one I kept being drawn to: his translation of the lines of Julius Caesar into his own language, his incomprehension at Lear’s heirs being women, his compassion for the sick old man in his care.

I know that Kani wanted to say something about Shakespeare and South Africa – he was the first black actor to play Othello ina marvellous production in the late 1980s – and to pay tribute to his brother, who died of liver cancer last year. I recommend reading the accompanying programme piece which gives more context. There is even a transformative storm during his play.

I appreciate that a still-divisive South Africa where whites who didn’t take advantage of their opportunities are “failures” and where blacks did not get to move from dangerous townships is ripe for political points. However, for me, Kunane and the King feels unfocused and confused at times and not quite the standard of typical RSC material.

John Kani and Antony Sher in Kunane and the King
John Kani and Antony Sher in Kunane and the King

The best scenes are the human ones, between two elderly men who may have more in common than they think. The dancing, the reciting, the nods to confusing modern technology, the cat and mouse game of a secretive drinker forbidden to indulge.

Kunane and the King continues at the Ambassadors until 28 March. It is directed by Janice Honeyman and features Lungiswa Plaatjies providing music and vocals between set changes.

Photo credits Ellie Kurttz.

LouReviews purchased a ticket to see Kunane and the King.