Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Blood Knot @ The Orange Tree Theatre

Blood Knot @ The Orange Tree Theatre

Apartheid seeps into the plot of this early play from South African playwright Athol Fugard like a poison. Set in Port Elizabeth, 1961, it depicts the relationship between two brothers who share the same mother, though their fathers are different. While one is black, the other can 'pass' as white.

It's this tension between brotherhood and racial difference that's at the heart of the play, underlined by the duality of dreams and reality.

Matthew Xia directs this revival at the Orange Tree Theatre that's more humorous than the subject would suggest. There's a playfulness between brothers Morrie (Nathan McMullen) and Zach (Kalungi Ssebandeke), revelling in boyish banter and power fantasies. The plot hinges on Zach's lusty desire for a woman, as Morrie persuades him to strike up a penpal friendship with a "well developed" eighteen year old. Yet when they discover she is white, things take a more sinister turn.

The set, designed by Basia Binkowska, is a shanty home that mirrors itself. On the one side sits Morrie, who tenderly cares for his brother in motherly, ritualistic fashion. On the other sits the childlike Zach, who is less naive than he initially seems. The shifting mood is supplemented by eerie, dreamlike electronic soundscapes from composer Xana.

The entire play takes place in the confines - and apparent safety - of this home. The first half plods. Fugard certainly humanises Apartheid, but the production feels static and repetitive. Racial tension simmers subtly under the surface as the brothers discuss their varying experience, differences in race running deeper than skin.

Yet Blood Knot is a play of creeping intensity. It's increasingly punctuated by the brothers' dreams and flashbacks, but there's tragedy in their japes. Eventually it culminates in a power fantasy of horrific proportions, their differences no longer performative but dangerously visceral. Both McMullen and Ssebandeke commit to authentic performances that slowly develop to an explosive, unsettling conclusion.

Though perhaps an edited, one act version would intensify that slow dread without a break, Fugard's play is thematically rich and deeply affecting. Over 50 years since its Broadway debut and over two decades since the end of Apartheid, it still resonates with the power to shock.


Watch: Blood Knot runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until April 20th.

Blood Knot @ The Orange Tree Theatre
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith