What can a play tell us about the world – more than half a century after its debut? I may as well ask why people still watch Shakespeare, but in the case of recent history, I always find myself wondering. Why now? Much like the Bard, it seems that racism will, sadly, always be relevant.
Blood Knot is a play about apartheid in South Africa. Athol Fugard’s play about two brothers, one black, one white, premiered in 1961, one year after the Sharpeville massacre claimed the lives of 69 protesters against racial segregation. Despite its setting, the play’s themes of compromised identities and brutalised brotherhood are just as powerful today.
Matthew Xia’s revival is dark, tense, and a little bit magical. He has truly got the best out of his performers, whose characters are flawed, sympathetic, and unnerving in their inscrutability. The play is a slow-burn, but Xia has handled it perfectly, ensuring that the threat and mystery of these two brothers is constant throughout. Kevin McCurdy is also deserving of praise for his work as choreographer in crafting a shocking climax of brutality and power.
Kalungi Ssebandeke is spell-binding as Zach, a roguish free-spirit whose disagreements with his brother on work and women mask deeper misgivings. Meanwhile, Nathan McMullen is fascinating as Morrie, an industrious sort who seems harmless enough, but is equally riven with insecurities and sinister designs.
The design is wondrous, from the shanty-town set to the haunting score. I loved Basia Basinkowska’s use of corrugated iron and wooden pallets and Ciaran Cunningham’s evocative lighting, all deep oranges and reds of dusky sunset. The sound and music deserve considerable plaudits too, as Xana’s score uses eerie ambience, foreboding chords, acoustic guitar, and jazz piano for an incredibly moving and otherworldly sequence.
My problems with the play relate to Fugard’s writing. While I enjoyed Zach’s character, I was curious to find out more about his backstory, particularly given quite a worrying suggestion of his dealings with women. The casting of the black brother as lecherous and workshy was questionable, and hardly excused by his brother Morrie’s condescending and violent tendencies. These characterisations seemed to enforce racial assumptions, rather than challenge them.
Nevertheless, Blood Knot is a timely and skilful work that is difficult to untie. Part historical drama, part Biblical parable, the play has much to tell us – but perhaps more questions than answers.
Author: Athol Fugard
Director: Matthew Xia
Producer: Stuart Burgess
Box Office: 020 8940 0141
Booking Link: https://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/blood-knot
Booking Until: 20th April 2019