Review: Kunene and the King, Ambassadors Theatre

‘Things were good for us, and we wanted to ride it to the end’ reflects white South African actor Jack (Antony Sher) to his black nurse Sister Kunene (John Kani), in this remarkably stark dramatic appraisal of South African society 25 years after the election of Nelson Mandela. As a historical record of the legacy of a repressive political system, the play is vital. As a consistently effective piece of theatre, it sometimes falls short.

The premise is simple: elderly white Joburg resident Jack is dying of liver cancer and he has been unexpectedly sent a black male nurse from Soweto. Alone and embittered, Jack is lamely intent on perpetuating his acting career despite his evident decrepitude, living a world of make-believe rather than facing the realities of his current predicament as well as those of the country at large. Kunene and The King takes advantage of the unavoidable fact that when it comes to healthcare, we have to submit to those given charge of our care. It suggests through the such interaction even the most deep-set prejudices can be overcome.

It is a recognisable story of the bigot’s redemption, popularised by Hollywood films like Driving Miss Daisy or Green Book. This well-trodden path finds a happy home in the Ambassador’s Theatre, whose shabby, classically West End grandeur seems to be imprinted with decades of countless forgotten, similarly formulaic productions. But what saves the play from descent into cliché is the fact that it pulls no punches when it comes to discussing the realities of much of modern South African society. This operates on a symbolic level, in how Jack coming to terms with his death is aligned to the white man’s acceptance of the death of Apartheid. But also, more intriguingly, it works through considerations of how certain streets have changed, or individual recollections of historical events like the Sharpeville Massacre. 

The play has been assembled by South African theatrical royalty: award-winning director Janice Honeyman instructs a cast made up of two-time Olivier award winner Sher, and Kami, who was the first black man to play the part of Othello in South Africa in 1987. Kami also wrote the play, and while the script is often rich in humour and colour, it is elsewhere unfortunately characterterised by rather creaky dialogue, and fails at times to build suspense towards moments of particular dramatic tension. 

It is not just the dialogue that sometimes jars: there is a rather arduous semi-slapstick set piece revolving hidden whiskey bottles that was played out at least five times, as well as some perhaps rather too obvious symbolism involving storms and Shakespeare busts. The parallel between Jack attempting to play King Lear with the actual character of Lear can sometimes seem forced. But Kami manages to weave lines of the old play into his new production in an effective and articulate way, and those lines hold a lot of power in Sher’s accomplished hands. 

Plays that originate from Africa remain few and far between on the London stage, and any opportunity to see the arts attempting to take measure full of South Africa, a country that is by some measures the most divided on the planet, should be applauded. If a few structural issues unfortunately dog the play during its 90 minute run-time, they can be forgiven at the end. A stunningly insightful anecdote delivered by Jack is followed by a largely unexpected but highly symbolic dramatic sequence, and the audience is left wondering about the past, present and future of South Africa long after they have left the auditorium.

Kunene and The King  is playing at the Ambassadors Theatre until 23 March. For more information and tickets, see the Ambassadors Theatre website.