Tim Hochstrasser reviews Athol Fugard’s play Blood Knot now playing at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond.
Orange Tree Theatre
13 March 2019
This is one of a number of Athol Fugard revivals intended to commemorate twenty-five years since the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Blood Knot is effectively Fugard’s very first play dating from 1960, and something of a landmark in that it represented the first time black and white actors had appeared on the same stage. One can readily see the origins of themes and tropes developed later in Fugard’s output, and as a historical document, this play is undoubtedly important. However, as drama, it is clunky and dated with far too much-unanchored chat and a racial politics that would have been daring and brave in the 60s coming over as rather too crudely drawn now. One mark of how far the dial has moved on that score is the row that recently took place in the USA over the casting of a white actor in what is written in this play as a mixed-race role. What was ground-breaking for Fugard himself is now judged to be unacceptable.
The action is set in a grim shanty town outside Port Elizabeth, recreated by designer Basia Binkowska with strips of corrugated iron around the theatre in the round that is the Orange Tree. Two beds and a primus stove and a scatter of basic belongings reveal this to be the home of two brothers, Morrie and Zach, both members of the ambiguously placed Cape Coloured community – sharing the same mother but two different fathers. Morrie can pass for white whereas Zach’s appearance is clearly black. The play takes its departure and its final point of repose from the inescapable judgments of apartheid society based on racial origins and their corrosive effect on all involved even those who are not worst placed in society.
Zach pays their way through a tiring and degrading job as a porter and security guard, whereas Morrie keeps house in a meticulous fashion, trying to save their exiguous funds so that they can leave the shanty town and purchase some land elsewhere. Zach seeks escape through drink and women instead and they arrive at a compromise in setting up Zach with a pen-pal to give him a romantic outlet. However, it is Morrie, as the one with the education, who writes the romantic letters. Events spiral out of control once it is clear that the recipient is not only interested in reciprocation, but also white, and therefore dangerously – for them – out of reach. They decide that Morrie should be the one to meet her, wearing a stylish new suit on which they have blown their savings.
Up to this point the action, while often a tad slow, has a compelling realism flecked with humour that is delightfully played out by the two talented actors. The South African accents are plausible, there is plenty of movement and flow across the stage and a good sense of pace. You feel the presence of the excellent work of director Matthew Xia, who has much experience in directing this author. You believe in the characters as brothers. Nathan McMullen is fully convincing as the fastidious, organised Morrie, desperate for his brother’s approval and with his energies fully focused on a dream of another life. Kalungi Ssebandeke plays Zach with a chilled, louche elegance, refusing to be ground down by the drudgery of his daily life and with a swaggering line in escapist possibilities. There are also some delightful touches from the creative team, above all in the outstanding soundscape devised by Xana who generates a very plausible set of noises for outdoor Africa alongside synthesised noises to add tension and atmosphere.
But, in the final half, an hour the tone changes markedly and we are taken on a journey that however true to the times it might have been, does not properly convince as a dramatic transition. Engaged in role play that started originally as part of their childhood experience, the distaste of the brothers for each other is revealed. Morrie cannot forgive his brother for reminding him of his mixed-race origins, and once dressed as a white man generates a swaggering racial superiority. Zach equally has little time for his brother once appearances are stripped away. Now the insidious role of racist ideology in setting different layers of the social structures against each other and corrupting those who are themselves, victims of the system, is all well known. But this long final role-play overstays its welcome and seems essentially inauthentic, tacked onto a naturalistic drama developed hitherto at a quietly puttering pace. It is though Fugard had spent too much time reading Samuel Beckett before writing the play and never fully digested it. The energy and emotional intensity that is created in the first few scenes of the second half is dissipated despite the heroic technical efforts of the two performers. A much better controlled and plausible example of how race twisted and distorted the lives of ordinary people, making everyone a kind of victim, is currently on show in A Lesson from Aloes at the Finborough.
Ultimately this is just an odd choice of play. Across Fugard’s large output there are many fine dramas crying out for revival which would have made an equally good or a more fitting commemoration of twenty-five years since the ending of apartheid. You cannot fault the qualities of the actors and the production that showcases them, but you are left wondering what they could have achieved with more maturely fashioned material by the same author.