Theatre Review: Blood Knot Depicts Divided Brothers In Apartheid South Africa

Blood Knot, Orange Tree Theatre ★★★★☆

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 16 months ago

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Theatre Review: Blood Knot Depicts Divided Brothers In Apartheid South Africa Blood Knot, Orange Tree Theatre 4
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Now 86, Athol Fugard made his name with a number of powerful plays that condemned the inhumanity of apartheid in his native South Africa. Blood Knot (first performed in 1961 but revised in 1987) concentrates on the relationship between two mixed-race half-brothers classified as "Coloured" and therefore subject to restrictions on their freedom by the repressive regime.

The lighter-skinned Morrie can pass as white, whereas the darker Zach is regarded as black. Morrie had left home in an attempt to live as a "new man", but has returned to his roots to share a humble abode with Zach in Port Elizabeth. The dream is to save enough money to start a farm in an uncultivated part of the country. But when Zach's "pen-pal" turns out to be a white woman, the brothers embark on a series of role-playing games that become increasingly sinister.

Through the use of a tightly focused two-hander, Fugard brilliantly exposes the insidious divisions of a racist society. The brothers have a close bond but the deep-lying tensions between them become apparent as they enact scenarios of white and black inequality, after Zach buys a suit for Morrie to wear when taking his place to meet the pen-pal.

Matthew Xia's claustrophobic production builds up to a devastating climax as childlike playful fantasy turns into a disturbing emotional reality. Basia Bińkowska's set of a township shack includes corrugated iron and plastic sheeting attached to the galleries.

There is great chemistry between Nathan McMullen's guilt-ridden, semi-educated Morrie, who takes control of domestic affairs and tries to plan for the future, and Kalungi Ssebandeke's more spontaneous, illiterate Zach, who just wants to let off some steam after finishing his grinding work. But can their "blood knot" survive the pressures of a pernicious society that judges people by their colour?

Blood Knot, Orange Tree Theatre, 1 Clarence Street, Richmond, TW9 2SA, £25. Until 20 April.

Last Updated 14 March 2019