Kalungi Ssebandeke in BLOOD KNOT by Athol Fugard - Orange Tree Theatre - photo by Richard Hubert Smith.

Blood Knot by Athol Fugard – Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Since it’s more than half a century since the first staging of this early Athol Fugard play, it has become something of an historical document as well as a continuingly relevant study of South African apartheid’s contamination of human relations.

The relations in question here are close, even fraternal, as the plot concerns two adult half-brothers (same mother, different fathers) leading a hard-pressed life together in a shack in the “coloured” section of Port Elizabeth.

This inflammatory c-word may be twice as long as four-letter terms of abuse, but its power to offend is similar – and international. Look at the furore caused just the other day by Amber Rudd referring to Diane Abbott as “a coloured woman.

In a thoughtful and persuasive note for the Orange Tree’s programme, the actor and playwright Ameera Conrad, whose grandparents were evicted from their Cape Town homes in what was to be designated a Whites Only Area in the 1950s, argues that such “architecture of Apartheid and Colonialism is what fuels current racial divides.

One of the brothers, Morris can – and does – pass for white. The other, Zachariah, can pass for nothing but black, as the ironically named pass laws constantly remind him. In easier times and more open societies, their differences might have been the stuff of genetic sitcom, but such humour as these lives have access to is nothing if not dark.

Under Morris’s guidance, Zachariah embarks on a pen-pal correspondence with a white girl, and lives in the hope that she might in time fall in love with him. It emerges that her brother is a policeman, and this hope looks even further from realisation. Only one thing for it. Morris will pose as Zachariah, dressing himself in fine White clothes that they can ill afford from their hard-scraped savings.

Much hangs on the plausibility of the casting, just as it did at its 1961 premiere in Johannesburg, when Morris acquired an even more authorial voice by being played by the 29-year-old author. For Matthew Xia’s lean, edgy production, Nathan McMullen, whether intentionally or not, is at times reminiscent of Fugard while Kalungi
Ssebandeke powers Zachariah with the wild articulacy of his body language.

The disguise element in the plot has always threatened to take the play into the realm of a more stylised, more knowing drama, yet the device is surely a part of Fugard’s intended metaphor about the importance of appearance in social trading, whether through the currency of skin colour or the finery of appropriated robes.

For a young playwright, as Fugard then was, this work was a remarkable blend of maturity, youthful rage and theatrical sophistication. This production matches it for commitment and in the process carries the relationship from one resembling that between George and Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men towards the darker brotherhood of Cain and Abel.

4 Stars

Review by Alan  Franks

One fine day, you wait and see. We’ll pack our things in something and get the hell out of here.

It’s been a year since Morrie returned to Port Elizabeth to live with his brother Zach. They share childhood memories of their mother, yet have wildly contrasting life experiences due to their different fathers.

Morrie wants to take them away from their township shack, buy a small farm and make a new life. To take their minds off the struggle, they decide Zach needs a pen pal. But who should it be? An innocent game can quickly go wrong…

As things get complicated, the stakes rise: can they free themselves from the enduring prejudices provoked by the different shades of their skin?

We’re tied together. It’s what they call the blood knot . . . the bond between brothers.

A vital part of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, playwright Athol Fugard’s prolific career spans seven decades. His work includes The Island, The Road to Mecca and “Master Harold”… and the Boys.

Blood Knot
8 March 2019 — 20 April 2019

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