Theatre Review: Blood Knot – Colour Coded, Or Brothers’ Keepers

October 25, 2021

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Blood Knot / Directed by James Ngcobo / Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg


Blood Knot is such an intimate play – two people having often overlapping conversations in the same spare room, moving between one of two beds, a plain table and a sideboard in which the bare essentials are stored – that its stark power, even if you’re seeing it for the third or fourth time, remains unexpected.

It is the story of two men, dark-skinned Zacharia (Mncedisi Shabangu) and light-skinned Morris (Francois Jacobs), who are defined as much by who they are as by who they are not and by what they can do as much as by what they can’t. That playwright Athol Fugard makes the two men brothers (same mother, different fathers) makes their shared but individually defined angst and disillusionment profoundly moving and artistically stimulating.

In one man, there is ambition; in the other, none. One is interested in possibilities – romantic, professional and otherwise – while the other is content to try and make the most of what circumstances offer. Both are tied to each other by familial bonds – the blood knot – but also by cultural expectations, and by the poverty that plays its part in almost all of their endeavours reaching dead ends before long.

The play was first performed in the early Sixties, under a different set of laws and the brutal oppression of apartheid. The brothers’ dawning realisation that their differing skin colour – nothing to do with choice or singular intent – means that their participation in a particular scenario can or cannot happen changes how they regard each other and how the audience must regard each of them. This was challenging, thought-provoking material then, revealing the layers and nuances of pain and damage caused by institutional prejudice and the glimmers of hope provided by the love and strength somehow still resident where those qualities should by any measure have been eroded long ago.

Shabangu’s natural talent, training and experience – among other things, he’s a Fugard veteran, having impressed in Sizwe Banzi Is Dead in 2014 – make him a superb fit for the frustrated, pained (in body and spirit) Zacharia. And Jacob’s work as the relatively kind and optimistic Morris is made even more impressive – he already holds his own against his forceful co-star – by the fact that he was brought in late in the rehearsal process to replace Craig Palm, who was unfortunately forced to pull out of the production. The pair’s chemistry is likely helped by their existing professional relationship – Shabangu was Jacob’s mentor for the latter’s directorial debut in the Market Theatre’s production of Victor Gordon’s Brothers at the beginning of 2020. But whatever the foundation, their standalone and collective performances here are potent and powerful.

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