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Blood Knot (Orange Tree Theatre)

Sophie acted as Casting Consultant on Matthew Xia's production of Blood Knot at the Orange Tree Theatre, playing 8 March 2019 — 20 April 2019.

'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.

Buy tickets here.

 ★★★★ The Guardian, Arifa Akbar:

'The script is layered with psychological games and role reversals, and can be unexpectedly shocking, even for modern audiences. McMullen and Ssebandeke both give striking performances, the power between them shifting: they become more than representations of black oppression or white privilege. As Morrie says, even if he “passes” as white, he cannot fully inhabit the role (“whiteness is not just in the skin”).

By the end, it is hard to tell who dominates whom. There are shades of Sophoclean drama and Cain and Abel. The message, delivered with such complex mastery, is one of brotherhood. Zach and Morrie must choose how to live as “black” and “white” brothers in apartheid South Africa. It is Fugard’s extraordinary achievement that their story feels just as relevant, and resonant, for our times.'

★★★★ Time Out, Tom Wicker:

'Xia, who directed Fugard’s ‘Sizwe Banzi is Dead’ at the Young Vic in 2014, demonstrates an assured grasp of the play’s harsh, bruising tone, set against sound designer Xana’s unnerving, rasping aural landscape. The production cultivates a grinding sense of catastrophe. When the brothers relive memories of childhood make-believe, there is a painful, fleeting tenderness.

As Zach and Morrie, Ssebandeke and McMullen – the only actors on stage throughout the play – have gripping chemistry as brothers who are mismatched by circumstance and temperament. Ssebandeke’s Zach is horny, restless and full of a deep, boiling rage. As Morrie, McMullen captures a world of guilt in his nervous smoothing of sheets and scurrying anxiety.

[...] Xia’s staging exerts a real, raw power as it shades in Fugard’s fierce portrayal of an overwhelmingly brutalising environment. When the brothers’ adult role-playing escalates to the racist world outside, it’s mesmerisingly horrifying. A smart suit, a hat and an umbrella – those symbols of white ‘civility’ – are a sickening sight.'

★★★★★ The Upcoming, Ghazaleh Golpira:

'Both Ssebandeke and McMullen are outstanding in their delivery, performing the roles of Morris and Zachariah with so much naturalness and ease that it feels as though they have been helming their own biopic.

In an era governed by socio-political ideals, where immigrants are stripped of their rights and nationalism is spreading around the globe like wildfire, Blood Knot is here to remind us that ethnic segregation is very much a present-day issue and one which still requires a great amount of tackling.'

★★★★ Broadway World, Aliya Al-Hassan:

'The production is an intense two-hander. Director Matthew Xia maintains audience attention throughout, using moments of levity, then quickly darkening the atmosphere. Both actors rise to the challenge admirably, revealing convincing chemistry and maintaining differing South African accents consistently. Significantly, they are both completely believable in their roles.

Nathan McMullen takes on the role of Morrie. He begins as the subservient brother; washing Zach's feet, cooking him dinner each night and saving every penny for their future of buying a farm together. McMullen is excellent in the role, starting as a bundle of nervous energy, constantly chattering and keeping to a strict timetable. His transformation into his role as the white man is tentative at first, but he visibly grows in stature and confidence as he gets immersed in the controlling character.

Kalungi Ssebandeke is very convincing as Zach, a man who concentrates on his present; a harsh boss, aching feet, his need for a woman. He is easily distracted, veering between heavy shuffling home from work to animated jumping around the stage as he gets increasingly excited about Ethel.

This is not a play of hope or redemption; the bond between the brothers is a tortured one. Race poisons the relationship between brothers and racial hatred infects everything in between. There is no happy resolution here, but this is a highly engaging production that provokes thought, debate and personal examination.'

The Stage:

'Nathan McMullen and Kalungi Ssebandeke are both excellent as the brothers – McMullen offering up a meticulous characterisation of Morrie, a man locked within himself, against Ssebandeke’s reckless, youthful Zach. They play off each other beautifully, alternating between affection and contempt.'

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Photographs: Richard Hubert Smith

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