Eleven European and American tourists are on a bus traveling through the African desert when the driver Moses (Vusi Kunene) discovers that the compass is broken. They are 500 miles off course. Stopping at the site of an old mine, they find out that there is no fuel. After talking with Kanana (Peter Kubheka), the only African in the area, Jack (Miles Anderson) instructs his fellow passengers to catch the night dew for water and to use the canned carrots for food. He will walk across the desert to find help. He estimates that it will take him five days to reach the nearest settlement.

Henry (David Bradley), an English actor, comes up with the idea of staging King Lear as a way of keeping their minds off the precariousness of their situation. He decides to recreate the play from memory. When Catherine (Romane Bohringer), a French woman, turns down his request to play Cordelia, Gina (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an edgy American, takes up the challenge. Slowly, others volunteer for the other roles.

When Jack doesn't return, the fears and tensions in the makeshift community heighten. Liz (Janet McTeer) taunts her weak husband, Ray (Bruce Davison), by making sexual overtures to the bus driver. Amanda (Lia Williams) rebels against her bigoted and violent husband (Chris Walker). And Charles (David Calder), an arrogant snob, is brought down a peg or two by Gina.

This compelling drama is directed by Kristian Levring, one of the co-founders of Dogma 95, who makes effective use of the beautiful but ominous desert setting. Spiritual writer John O'Donohue has observed: "Imagination is the threshold that runs between light and dark, visible and invisible, quest and question, possibility and fact." Here Shakespeare's classic serves as a cathartic force in the lives of these nasty and frightened individuals who, like Lear, must contend with vanity, lust, hate, selfishness, and anger. The King Is Alive is a compelling drama of survival with several very surprising twists.