Blood Knot at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

Blood Knot

Orange Tree Theatre, 19th March 2019

To date I have only seen two plays by Athol Fugard. Both bravely examine racial politics in a South Africa divided by apartheid. Both are two-handers examining the relationship between two men, John and Winston, two prisoners on Robben Island practicing for a performance of Antigone in The Island, and here, in Blood Knot, half-brothers Morris and Zachariah who share a tiny shack in the “Coloured” section of Port Elizabeth. In both plays Mr Fugard is not afraid of taking his time, building out character, situation and message with a wealth of detail. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but, on both occasions, I have found myself being drawn in to the intense relationships where one man is “freer” than another in a society utterly disfigured by state-sanctioned racism. Though not enough timely convinced by the dramatic qualities.

Mr Fugard, who is actor and director as well as novelist and playwright, has been working at his craft for over five decades, has packed a lot into his life and has garnered numerous awards in the UK, US as well as his native SA. (He even has a theatre complex in Cape Town named after him which is about to show Kunene and the King after its run at the RSC).

Now I am assuming Blood Knot holds a special place in AF’s heart as he acted alongside his friend and colleague Zakes Mogae at the world premiere in Johannesburg in 1961, multiracial theatre in defiance of the regime. In the same year SA became a Republic and left the British Commonwealth, 69 unarmed black protestors were shot dead by South African police, the Sharpeville Massacre, and Nelson Mandela and the rest of the ANC Executive were found not guilty of treason by the SA High Court. The following year though Mandela was arrested, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.

Blood Knot, and AF’s other work (with his wife Sheila), his public support of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (which led to an international boycott of SA theatre) and the increasing international presence of his work outside SA, led to restrictions on his movement, including confiscation of his passport, and to constant surveillance and harassment. He worked alongside the progressive black theatre company, the Sergeant Players in the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in The Island, written with its original leads, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, as well as Sizwe Bansi is Dead, with its more obvious Brechtian and Absurd influences, also from 1972. His other most well known plays, A Lesson From Aloes, (which I stupidly missed when it appeared at the Finborough recently), Master Harold … and the boys, which is about to be revived at the NT, and The Road to Mecca, date from the late 1970s and 1980s, but he hasn’t slowed down continuing to examine the issues which have arisen in SA society since the end of apartheid.

Morris (Nathan McCullen) can pass as white but, for reasons that are never made entirely clear, has returned to live with his half-brother Zachariah (Kalungi Ssebandeke, who wrote the very well regarded Assata Taught Me performed at the Gate a couple of years ago). Under Apartheid, people defined as “Coloured” had a different status to those classed as White, Black, East Asian or Cape Malay. This meant that they were not confined to Homelands but their movement and employment was still heavily restricted and their economic prospects constrained. But, as you might expect, such classifications of those with mixed heritage, as well as being reprehensible in principle were difficult to “police” in practice. This is what the play explores.

The fastidious Morris looks after the shack whilst Zac trudges off to work every day. They dream of saving enough from Zac’s earnings to buy a farm, live frugally, with minimal social interaction but share a rich life of imagination. Zac, with Morris’s help since he is literate, strikes up a pen-pal relationship with a woman, but, when they realise she is white, with a policeman brother, they decide that Morris will have to take up her offer of a date in Zac’s place. Zac spends their savings on a fine “white” suit for the meeting, but, when the girl breaks off the correspondence, the clothes become the catalyst for a surreal, and increasingly provocative and complex role-play, or worse, where Morris, as “white” starts to bully Zac, and Zac in turn, harbours a desire to kill Morris. There is no resolution. They are tied together by familial love, but shattered by the system that they live in.

Given the quality of the dialogue, the sure hand of director Matthew Xia, now in charge of the Actors Touring Company and who was behind the revival of Sizwe Banzi is Dead at the Young Vic in 2014, and a very effective set from Basia Binkowska, (who also impressed in the Lyric Hammersmith OthelloMacbeth), I suspect I was always going to be partial to the idea of this. However the careful performances of both actors, with a palpable chemistry between them, definitely helped. I can’t pretend that the claustrophobic, dense structure and rhythm of the play, especially as it moves into the ambiguous final third, didn’t occasionally frustrate and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the distracting electronic sound design of Xana. After two powerful, if sometimes ponderous, performances of AF’s plays I think the next bite of the cherry needs to have a little more dramatic variety and a bigger cast. I gather Master Harold … has one extra character. Phew.

The Island at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

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The Island

Southwark Playhouse, 5th June 2017

The Island was written by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, whose other major work is Sizwe Bansi is Dead, and first performed, illegally, by the writers to an integrated audience in Cape Town in 1973. It was devised and rehearsed in secret under the threat of government censorship, when even discussion of the conditions in the infamous prison on Robben Island was prohibited. It takes inspiration from a performance of Antigone in 1970 on Robben Island by a group of inmates including Nelson Mandela as Creon.

For these reasons alone you should see this play. For those under 40 (and there were a number at this performance – good on them) I assume that the reality of apartheid is hard to grasp. This play, and the spirited performances delivered by Edward Dede and Mark Springer under the direction of John Terry (of Chipping Norton not Chelsea), is a shocking indictment of this regime, but also a universal reminder of how the state can still repress today. The two actors play John and Winston, who are cell mates on Robben Island, and who are planning to stage their own version of the trial scene from Antigone. It skilfully charts, through reminisces, their three years of shared captivity, their families beyond the prison, the reasons for their incarceration, and the intense friendship, indeed brotherhood, which keeps them defiant despite the injustice they are suffering.

The play opens with fifteen minutes of wordless, and prop-less, acting out of the pointless and back breaking work they are compelled to undertake – shifting sand to each other. They are then forced to run whilst shackled together whilst being beaten. It is uncomfortable to watch – that is the intention – and leaves you to ruminate over why this would ever be done to someone. The two actors make this imaginary pain feel very real. If you are getting fidgety after fifteen minutes of acting try 27 years locked up in this place it seems to say.

Thereafter there are few conscious reminders of their captivity – no guards (the unseen Hodoshe represents their captors and the whole apartheid machinery) or any other characters, and a near completely bare stage. The play instead focuses on what they do for, and say to, each other to keep their spirits strong and cling to the ideals of freedom. The dynamic shifts when John is told his appeal has been successful and will be released. The last part of the play sees the enactment of the scene from Antigone, where Antigone accepts her fate because she has done the right thing and thereby unmasks Creon as a tyrant hiding behind the law, and this is where the real power of the play is unlocked. What was true in Sophocles’s age was true in racist South Africa and is still true today.

Anyway go and see it. If it you find it a bit dour or hard work it might just remind you how free you are. And maybe make you think about the redemptive power of the theatre. And how the bastards in this world will always lose out in the end. And that surely is a good thing.