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Review of Blood Knot at the Orange Tree Theatre

Kalungi Ssebandeke and Nathan McMullen in BLOOD KNOT by Athol Fugard - Orange Tree Theatre - photo by Richard Hubert Smith.
Kalungi Ssebandeke and Nathan McMullen in BLOOD KNOT by Athol Fugard – Orange Tree Theatre – photo by Richard Hubert Smith.

Blood Knot is a two-handed, early (1960) play by South Africa’s most important playwright, Athol Fugard who also directed the first production in Johannesburg, when black and white actors were still allowed to perform together onstage.

The action, such as it is, takes place in a shack in Korsten, Port Elizabeth and concerns brothers Morrie and Zach. Morrie is light-skinned who could pass for white. He has some education and can read, which is his escape from life. He is calm, controlled, rational.

Zach is dark-skinned and has no education, a fact of which he is almost proud. He wants a woman, so Morrie suggests a pen pal, but after her first reply, it is obvious that not only is she white, she also wants to meet Zach…

The 90-minute first act is rather repetitive and would benefit from pruning, but the surreal, much shorter, second half is Fugard at his very best and is totally gripping.

The performances from the two protagonists are simply superb and must be the main reason for catching this revival.

Nathan McMullen as Morrie is the embodiment of a South African and is totally committed in role – you very quickly forget that you are watching acting so believable is the person he has created, not only in his dialogue but also in his physicality and his relationship with his brother, especially as Fugard cleverly drip feeds us information about him throughout.

Kalung Ssebandeke impresses with the level of his concentration in the role: again he is totally believable, even if we do not understand the motivation behind his thought processes. His face is beautifully, subtly expressive, understated yet powerful. In addition, the two actors work together as if they really were brothers, having known each other since childhood.

Matthew Xia’s direction ensures that the second act of the play is as powerful as the playwright intended, and ensures that there is a variety of pace and action in the first part so that the whole play involves the audience fully – especially being so close, as one is at the Orange Tree.

Basia Binkowska is responsible for the corrugated iron design which brings the audience right into the brothers’ shack. Ciaran Cunningham has designed lighting which aids understanding of time passing and Xana is responsible for the sound design, which is perhaps occasionally too obvious: we notice it when we shouldn’t and it is perhaps too dominant.

All in all, this is a fine piece of work and one of which the Orange Tree Theatre and all concerned can be justly proud. I was totally gripped from beginning to end, and the denouement is quite terrifying. Do try to see it – the Orange Tree is only 15 minutes from Waterloo!

4 stars

Review by John Groves

One fine day, you wait and see. We’ll pack our things in something and get the hell out of here.

It’s been a year since Morrie returned to Port Elizabeth to live with his brother Zach. They share childhood memories of their mother, yet have wildly contrasting life experiences due to their different fathers.

Morrie wants to take them away from their township shack, buy a small farm and make a new life. To take their minds off the struggle, they decide Zach needs a pen pal. But who should it be? An innocent game can quickly go wrong…

As things get complicated, the stakes rise: can they free themselves from the enduring prejudices provoked by the different shades of their skin?

We’re tied together. It’s what they call the blood knot . . . the bond between brothers.

A vital part of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, playwright Athol Fugard’s prolific career spans seven decades. His work includes The Island, The Road to Mecca and “Master Harold”… and the Boys.

Blood Knot
8 March 2019 — 20 April 2019


  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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