Writer: Athol Fugard
Director: Matthew Xia
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
London is seeing a resurgence of interest in Athol Fugard. A week after a revival of the South African writer’s politically-charged play A Lesson from Aloes opened at the Finborough Theatre, here comes Blood Knot, a play originally performed in 1961, seen in a 1987 revised version. Apartheid forms the backdrop to both plays, but politics are secondary in Blood Knot, as Fugard undertakes a forensic examination of the human cost of racism and goes directly to its sordid heart.
Morrie (Nathan McMullen) and Zach (Kalungi Ssebandeke) are half brothers. They have the same black mother, but Morrie’s father is white and Zach’s father is black. They live together in a cramped shack with basic amenities, Morrie dreaming of saving for them to buy a farm together, Zach yearning for a woman. To satisfy Zach’s needs, Morrie finds him a female penpal, Ethel, from a newspaper, but she is white and, eventually, she wants to meet her suitor.
There are elements of the Cyrano de Bergerac story, firstly with Morrie writing Zach’s letters and then, in reverse, with Morrie planning to stand in for Zach at the meeting with Ethel, because he is able to pass as white. However, Fugal eschews romance and takes the play into dark and disturbing territory when he explores how adopting the guise of a white man changes Morrie fundamentally.
The scenes have symmetry, each beginning with Zach trudging home after a hard day’s work, while Morrie is preparing a simple meal. Fugol’s writing style, contrasting sweet lyricism and harsh realities, gives each scene poignancy and beauty. It is not made clear why Morrie does not work and the writer gives the character only a sketchy back story, suggesting that he has returned home to his brother after a period away during which he had been unable to find a sense of belonging in any section of South Africa’s racist society.
It is hard to imagine a venue more suited to this play than the Orange Tree. Director Matthew Xia’s production is taut, claustrophobic and highly atmospheric. Two single mattresses lie in opposite corners in Basia Bińkowska’s set design, with the audience making up the four walls of the brothers’ shack. Ciarán Cunningham’s lighting casts a warm glow, with birdsong and music composed by Xana adding to the perfectly-judged ambience.
The two actors are simply superb, making the brotherly bond utterly believable. McMullen generates a sense of unease, stemming from Morrie doubting his place in the world, the only certainty being that his part-whiteness gives him a responsibility to take care of Zach. Ssebaneke’s Zach shows acceptance of his place at the bottom of the social pile, tackling hardships with good spirits. After over two hours in the company of these brothers, we begin to care about them and wonder how they might have fared in the new post-Apartheid South Africa.
Runs until 20 April 2019 | Image: Richard Hubert Smith