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Blood Knot review at Orange Tree Theatre, London – ‘a haunting play about race’

Kalungi Ssebandeke and Nathan McMullen in Blood Knot at Orange Tree Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

In a small shack in Port Elizabeth, deep in the grip of Apartheid, two brothers – one white-passing, one darker skinned – eat together, sleep together, bicker with one another.

In Athol Fugard’s 1961 play, given a detailed, confident production by Matthew Xia, the bond between the brothers is stretched to its limits by the constant, insidious threat of racism – both from the external world and the brothers’ own internalised workings.

Xia’s direction brings clarity to an occasionally too-dense play – carefully modulating the melodramatic moments into something more haunting and more delicate. He is assisted in this by Xana’s eerie, echoing sound design.

Xia and movement director Angela Gasparetto do fine work in cultivating a sense of the practised, bone-dull routine both brothers must endure – a routine that at times slips into effervescent (and then terrifying) role play games.

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.

Only during the violence which explodes at the play’s climax does the production seem to lose control. Despite Xia’s careful direction, the play’s depiction of the crushing effects of ingrained racism becomes something more unwieldy in the in-the-round space of the Orange Tree – the violent, oppressive imagery onstage lands uncomfortably with a majority white audience and the abrupt power shift that occurs between the brothers does not feel sufficiently unpicked. A production that previously felt admirably contained and inward-facing, suddenly turns outwards, with ambiguous results.

Director Matthew Xia: ‘The moment you lose an audience member, you’ve failed’

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A haunting staging of Athol Fugard’s devastating two hander about race