Celebrating both playwright Athol Fugard and the 45th anniversary of the Market Theatre, artistic director James Ngcobo turns to the earlier work to capture this moment in time. DIANE DE BEER reviews Blood Knot, the perfect choice for what feels like a re-awakening of live theatre:
PICTURES: SIPHIWE MHLAMBI
BLOOD KNOT BY ATHOL FUGARD
STARRING: Francois Jacobs (Morris) and Mncedisi Shabangu (Zacharia)
DIRECTOR: James Ngcobo
LIGHTING DESIGNER: Mannie Manim
PROPS AND SET DESIGNER: Nadya Cohen
THEATRE: Mannie Manim at The Market, Johannesburg
DATES: Until November 14 Tuesdays to Saturdays 7pm; Sundays 3.15pm;
From the time you lay eyes on Mncedisi Shabangu waiting to enter into the dreamworld of the two brothers in Blood Knot, it’s difficult to turn away.
His whole body seems to be drenched in sadness, and at this point you can’t yet see his eyes. But that is Shabangu’s strength. He climbs into a character almost stretching the skin to breaking point. And when he holds onto his centre like he does here, using his tools sparsely, it’s magnificent.
The two brothers (the one seemingly white, the other black) live in a dilapidated room somewhere in a township. Zacharia earns a living while Morris stays behind in the room, caring for his brother and their dreams.
He has his sights set on a small farm in Africa, but his brother’s desires are more immediate. What Fugard does so brilliantly is to thread the sadness of their lives through every breath they take, from start to finish.
It’s not in big gestures or huge events and that’s what makes it so painful to witness. It’s visibly there in everything they do. It’s where and how they live, their isolation, the way they keep polishing their dreams, which hopefully creates a life, and perhaps as an endgame, happiness.
They take small steps as long as they can keep the harsh world at bay, but as we all know, that’s impossible when something as visible as the colour of your skin determines not only your life, but your total being. And how does one buffer the pain?
That’s what Mncedisi manages to put across with his blend of naiveté and an almost childlike desire to secure some warmth and humanity in this place that doesn’t seem to hold any of that. And still he desires and dreams.
It’s in the rhythm of the way he both moves and speaks. Sometimes he takes it slow, then speeds it up, but always quietly so that when he raises his voice in either anger or joy, it cuts through the fabric of your soul.
That’s the kind of work this is, small and written with a quiet simplicity and yet, the issues are pressing against the walls of that room as if waiting to explode. Fugard knew that it is in these small stories, the everyday events that slip by unnoticed, that the depth of racism lies.
And especially this early work, the first that made the world step back and notice, makes it very clear how this kind of hatred permeates everything it comes into contact with – every minute of the day and night. It affected everything and everyone – the oppressed and the oppressors – and it still does.
Because Mncedisi’s character is the one who holds you tight and draws you in, Jacobs’s Morris could just disappear, but he has forged a strong presence, acts as the brother’s foil and allows the bond between these two disparate characters to evolve.
Ngcobo has always been a Fugard fan, both as an actor and as a director, and it is clear that this one, in The Market’s 45th celebratory year and Fugard’s upcoming 90th in 2022, is a heartfelt love letter. He has honoured the text and allowed the words and the actors to sing.
And with a full understanding of the nuances of the work Mannie Manim adds to the mood as he lights the space with great dexterity and delicacy.
It is in the simplicity that everything glows and allows you to step inside the pain and experience a life that can only be determined by others. Those of us who have had the privilege of planning our own futures with relative ease, may find it difficult to understand the lives of others. That’s what Fugard did so insightfully during the apartheid years when few voices managed to make themselves heard.
And in a world where racism has grown rather than diminished as one would have hoped, his plays are as relevant and even more poignant than when they were first written. Because we lived through those horrific years even if we were part of the privileged (rewarded for being born white), to witness what is happening today is excruciating.
When will the world learn that diversity is what makes it turn? Fugard said it then and is still saying it now. And yet we keep shunning the other and stomping on their dreams.
Ngcobo and his two actors are determined to shine the light – and they do so stunningly.