Powerful Performances Depict Two Men On Each Side Of The Race Divide

Liz Vercoe reviews Blood Knot at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Kalungi Ssebandeke and Nathan McMullen

When first seen, in Johannesburg in 1961, the effect of this play must have been electrifying and probably rather terrifying. Even the cast, black South African-born actor Zakes Mokae and the white Afrikaans-born playwright himself, Athol Fugard, appearing together on stage was an aberration in apartheid-riven South Africa, only made possible thanks to a soon-to-be-closed loophole in the law.

Today's audiences don't have that immediate context in which to view the characters and it therefore takes a while to understand what we are seeing. Which is a shame because it slows the play. At face value there is a dirt-poor white man, Morrie, obviously educated, but hiding in a shanty town hut (well captured by designer Basia Bińkowska), and waiting each day for an exhausted, sore-footed black man, Zach, to return home for Morrie's foot rubs, food, bible readings and sleep. Morrie shares with him his dreams of a farm just made for two; the disinterested Zach's mind is on his first, rather violent, sexual encounter with a seemingly unwilling girl called Connie.

In 2019 you can read loads of stuff into that. Is the white guy gay? A criminal? Is Zach an easily agitated and potentially violent predator? Why is he in thrall to Morrie? What do they mean by "brother"?

All of which are red herrings in this plot about two brothers with different fathers who accidentally contravene the apartheid laws. Once you comfortably establish they really are brothers in early 1960s South Africa, the play, directed by Matthew Xia, takes proper shape and starts to move on.

Despite the recent furore over a British politician saying "coloured" instead of "black", we do not have the awful South African experience of legally categorising people's worth and life opportunities by their shade of skin and parentage. Not simply black or white but every nuance of melanin in between. That is what is under the microscope here. On the one hand we are presented with light-skinned, not white but passably so, Morrie, played with caring intensity by Nathan McMullen who wonderfully depicts survivor's guilt, the weight on his shoulders of having been born with a passport to a better life than his brother's. And on the other, with skin and hair indistinguishable from then bottom-of-the-heap African, is Zach, a man whose soul has been destroyed. His complexity of character is beautifully captured by Kalungi Ssebandeke who takes the audience from distrust, to pity, to anxiety to utter sadness. Did even their mother love him as much as Morrie, he asks? And when Morrie sobs, "I'm not a Judas", after admitting to sampling the white life, it has the effect of elevating his brother Zach to a saviour who has been nailed to a tree. Both brothers hate themselves but for different reasons.

There are great music and sound effects from Xana, try not turning your head ready to swat a fly irritatingly buzzing nearby, but you have to tune in to the Afrikaans words and accent, especially when the brother's arguments get heated. Ultimately the story is depressing in its hopelessness, which is exactly the right sentiment with which to view what's happened in South Africa and also the racism constantly rearing its ugly head here and worldwide. Only bad things come from leaving people angrily hating themselves. When this play came out in 1961 it was a powerful cry for change in broken attitudes towards race, but now we've papered over the cracks its message is muffled.

Liz Vercoe

Images: Richard Hubert Smith

March 14, 2019