Review: Blood Knot, Orange Tree Theatre

We are in apartheid Port Elizabeth, South Africa, 1961. The world outside is divided by race. We sit with the light-skinned Nathan McMullen’s Morris, waiting for his dark-skinned brother, Zach, played by Kalungi Ssebandeke. This is the small, claustrophobic world of director Matthew Xia’s production of Blood Knot, anti-apartheid South African playwright Athol Fugard’s play about division and brotherhood.

The play follows the two brothers’ day to day lives as they try to save up, dreaming of a better future. Morris suggests Zach should take on a pen pal and they compose letters together, resulting in a correspondence that becomes dangerous once Morris finds out the ad was placed in a white newspaper and the girl they have been writing to is white.

The production uses time in a way that is very compelling. In the time of Tinder, Bumble or Hinge, we are used to quick replies and visual references. In Blood Knot, we have to wait to learn more about Ethel, wait for each letter for more information, wait to learn that her brother is a policeman and also wait for her picture, which reveals the danger the brothers have to deal with. The production itself takes its time; Xia doesn’t rush the routines of getting up or coming home, the monotone life is presented to us in its entirety. Tension builds, aided by the subtle and considered sound design by Xana.

It is masterful how Fugard orchestrates the brothers’ dynamics throughout, performed excellently by McMullen and Ssebandeke. It might seem that Zach is constantly put in the spotlight and has more agency out of the two: he gets to leave every day, work, stay active in the outside world, and usually almost nothing happens when he is not on stage. We, just like Morris, wait for Zach. Even the girl, the ’18 and fully developed’ Ethel is Zach’s pen pal, chosen specifically for him. But the further we get, the clearer it becomes that this story belongs to Morris just as much as it does to Zach. He might be washing his brother’s feet, preparing his meals and wait for him every day, but as the plot develops we understand just how much he drives the action forward. The turning point might be when he first puts on the suit Zach buys him – a “gentleman’s outfit”. What follows is a role play that gets increasingly dangerous. Its outcome might be a little predictable, but Xia directs it with a steady hand, and so while we might anticipate the violence, it is still very jarring and powerful.

Perhaps my favourite moment is when Morris lowers a single hanger in the middle of the stage to hang his suit. Everything has a place in Basia Binkowska’s compact and tidy set – the lowered hanger pierces the intimate space, introducing a new spot to hang and display something with care – something menacing and dangerous.

Blood Knot is playing until 20 April 2019. For more information and tickets, see the Orange Tree Theatre website.