‘Blood Knot’ review

Theatre, Drama
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
 (© Richard Hubert Smith)
1/5
© Richard Hubert Smith Kalungi Ssebandeke and Nathan McMullen
 (© Richard Hubert Smith)
2/5
© Richard Hubert Smith Kalungi Ssebandeke and Nathan McMullen
 (© Richard Hubert Smith)
3/5
© Richard Hubert Smith Nathan McMullen and Kalungi Ssebandeke 
 (© Richard Hubert Smith)
4/5
© Richard Hubert Smith Kalungi Ssebandeke 
 (© Richard Hubert Smith)
5/5
© Richard Hubert Smith Nathan McMullen

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Athol Fugard’s 1961 play about two brothers divided by race gets a tough and tender revival

Blood Knot’ is part of an unofficial mini-season of plays by South African playwright Athol Fugard in London, with ‘A Lesson from Aloes’ currently on at the Finborough Theatre as well. ‘Blood Knot’ is an earlier work, from 1961, but Matthew Xia’s production is more compelling.

There’s a mix of Cain and Abel and the Prodigal Son in Fugard’s parable-like tale of half-brothers living in segregated Port Elizabeth in apartheid-era South Africa. Mixed-race Morrie (Nathan McMullen), who returned home a year ago, can ‘pass’ as white but doesn’t want to. Zach (Kalungi Ssebandeke), who is black, works long days.

The seeds of so much of Fugard’s later works are here. Apartheid deforms everything, twisting family relationships and self-identity. The soul-destroying daily routine that Zach has no choice but to follow is also Morrie’s bulwark against the ugliness outside their door. When Zach selects a female pen-pal from a ‘white’ newspaper, the fear of reprisal is palpable.

Xia, who directed Fugard’s ‘Sizwe Banzi is Dead’ at the Young Vic in 2014, demonstrates an assured grasp of the play’s harsh, bruising tone, set against sound designer Xana’s unnerving, rasping aural landscape. The production cultivates a grinding sense of catastrophe. When the brothers relive memories of childhood make-believe, there is a painful, fleeting tenderness.

As Zach and Morrie, Ssebandeke and McMullen – the only actors on stage throughout the play – have gripping chemistry as brothers who are mismatched by circumstance and temperament. Ssebandeke’s Zach is horny, restless and full of a deep, boiling rage. As Morrie, McMullen captures a world of guilt in his nervous smoothing of sheets and scurrying anxiety.

Some of the play’s gender politics have dated, including a jarringly passing mention of sexual assault. But Xia’s staging exerts a real, raw power as it shades in Fugard’s fierce portrayal of an overwhelmingly brutalising environment. When the brothers’ adult role-playing escalates to the racist world outside, it’s mesmerisingly horrifying. A smart suit, a hat and an umbrella – those symbols of white ‘civility’ – are a sickening sight.  

By: Tom Wicker

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