FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by Matthew Xia. Basia Binkowska’s spare set situates a simple pair of beds surrounded with corrugated steel. It’s complemented by Ciaran Cunningham’s lighting, darkness punctuated with lamps. Xana’s sound design features evocatively-placed chords. Angela Gasparetto’s movement and Kevin McCurdy’s fight direction takes over at the climax. Emma Woodvine’s dialect coaching and Megan Rarity’s costumes provide authenticity.
In 1991 Athol Fugard recalled that aged seventeen he spat in the face of a black man. His instant recoil from that appalling act defined his life. And the most visceral expiation of that lies in Blood Knot, his fifth play from 1961 with Fugard taking one part alongside black actor Zakes Mokai. It was a year after Sharpeville, and just before new laws responding to Blood Knot prohibited black and white actors appearing on stage together. This version is a later-revised text losing nothing of the original’s visceral punch.
Matthew Xia’s 2011 production at the Young Vic of Fugard’s 1972 Sizwe Banzi is Dead with Sibusiso Mamba in the title role, was memorable: not least with black and white audience members segregated as they entered. Blood Knot is if anything even more layered and taut, less overtly political – new laws were on the horizon – and more claustrophobic. In Xia’s hands it’s a mastery of simmering fraternity.
The title refers to two brothers living in Port Elizabeth, the English colony, where Fugard grew up. It’s also where the ‘Coloured’ reside, in shanty towns: those of Malay, Indian, East Asian and other ethnicities the authorities struggled to keep pace with. This offensive term is as Ameera Conrad points out in her programme essay, a far more complex ownership: many now embrace this identity. And as Conrad quotes with deadly nonchalance the authorities ‘segregated every “funny tinge” of Black or Brown that existed’ – reminding us that two weeks before this production opened a new racist phrase entered the language courtesy of TIG MP Angela Smith.
Basia Binkowska’s spare set situates a simple pair of beds diagonally on the OT’s stage, with crates as bedside cabinets doubling as chairs, a bare table and surrounding floor. Corrugated steel doors guard both exit doors and the gallery’s festooned with a patchwork of the same rusty kaleidoscope. Ciaran Cunningham’s lighting suggests liminal light darkly filtered, and darkness punctuated with lamps. Xana’s sound design is a strong composition with evocatively-placed chords. Angela Gasparetto’s movement involves two men pacing each other as tension mounts – she too worked on the Young Vic production. Then Kevin McCurdy’s fight direction takes over at the climax. Emma Woodvine’s dialect coaching provide shiveringly authentic results and Megan Rarity’s costumes prove that even when smart, there’s sixty shades of grey when you’re oppressed.
As Conrad reminds us, three children from the same mixed-race family can seem of completely different ethnicities, from white through to black. Nathan McMullen’s Morrie, a man who might ‘pass’ as white has chosen to live with brother Zach. Kalungi Ssebandeke’s portrayal of a man who’s unaspirational and can’t read or write is shot through with the wit and humour Fugard invests in him. Both brothers are clever, needlingly subversive of each other’s views, but different. Zach lives in the moment, Morrie’s a strategist, reads widely, has a range of vocabulary Zach asks to be reminded of every time he relates an oppressive act. ‘Inhumanity’ for one. But there’s deeper divides than language.
As Morrie attempts to ‘rescue’ Zach taking charge of finances to save for a farm (echoing Of Mice and Men) you’re strongly reminded of the whole dialectic of the white boss-man playing out patriarchal roles for the black man’s ‘good’. Zach reminds celibate, anxious Morrie that he himself spent it on ‘woman, woman’ and enjoyed himself before Morrie virtue-signalled with it.
It’s Morrie who provides the germ of conflict. He suggests Zach has a pen pal woman, and selects one from the newspaper Zach brought. Except that the answering letter proves it’s a white newspaper: a white girl of eighteen called Ethel. After enormous agonizing about what Ethel’s policeman brother will do when he discovers the truth, Zach persuades Morrie to take over the project – after all he’s writing the letters. And can pass as white. So what about those forty-five Rands saved up? What about a real suit, a hankerchief for the lady? Zach thinks he’s found a solution.
But it’s the outfall of Zach’s initiative that polarizes the role paly the brothers have always enjoyed. As Zach goads Morrie to assume his whiteness authentically, the slippage between role and reality blurs. The shocking climax and aftermath beg questions of what truth and reconciliation can bring for two brothers untied by a blood knot yet seemingly separated by it too.
This is a play whose narrow compass allows a patient, excoriating removal of layers. McMullen unnervingly inhabits Morrie’s uptight moral-compassed-spinning cultured man. One who lives between three worlds, thinks he’s liberally plumbing for his brother then goaded to enact a whiteness that’s somewhere deeper than skin. And the way the climax is calibrated sees McMullen’s Morrie shed calculation.
Ssebandeke’s role as goad enjoys a thrilling vocal register. Zach’s perception of Morrie’s flaws is memorably detailed, from apparent happy-go-lucky shanty-dweller through ebullient purchaser of Morrie’s suit (memorably claiming it’s not for himself) to provoking a visceral response from that suit. There’s vivid riffing on the marginality Zach accepts as his lot without any reprieve. And Ssebandeke makes a haunting of Zach’s jokey physicality, again uncomfortably suggests a man tugging at stereotypes.
With Angela Smith’s phrase ringing in our ears, there’s not going to be a better play anywhere that answers it. Not with a spit, but an act of reparation that after nearly sixty years is as fresh as taint. Do see it.