Blood Knot (Project Arts Centre, Dublin) – A Theatre Review
There was a television programme on the other night asking why Irish playwrights had generally failed to challenge the orthodoxy of crass greed during the Celtic Tiger years (my way of summarising it). Even though the question was fiercer than the attempt to answer it, it was still interesting to watch the piece in the lead up to Shiva Productions’ revival of Blood Knot – Athol Fugard’s 50-year old play about two brothers living in a shack in apartheid-poxed South Africa. Unsurprisingly, in offering up lines such as dreams being evidence enough to have one arrested, whilst lampooning racial discrimination through savage play-acting, this was a work that was never going to endear Mr. Fugard to the loony-tunes in charge. Even now, its final scenes still offer up the meaty thud of pricks being kicked, so it was not surprising to learn that those involved in its initial domestic performances did fall foul of the authorities.
Set in a corrugated one-room box next to a fetid lake, brothers Zach and Morrie endure a brittle and meagre existence together. As played by Keith Ward, Morrie is decidedly Gollum-like in his toadying appeasement early-on of the exhausted bread-winning Zach (Kolade Agboke). Meanwhile, the latter – his memory the consistency of cotton wool – is reduced to caveman utterances about his need for “woh-man”. The contrasts between the two are stark, with Morrie literate, regimented, introverted, and prone to nervy babble, while Zach is less sharp-witted, more physiological in terms of his needs, and quite unvarnished in terms of how to fulfil them. He dreams of Friday nights filled with beer, birds, and bonhomie; his brother of vacant, nameless green spots on the map of Africa.
At this point, a nubile MacGuffian is introduced in the form of a female pen pal correspondent for Zach (in order to channel his sexual urges). However, it soon transpires that Ethel is white and has a policeman for a brother. Morrie’s subsequent panic prompts him into challenging his brother head-on, but the suddenly ardent Zach is not for dissuasion. This all leads to the brothers confronting the hitherto ignored elephant in their humble room of their contrasting physical appearances, for Morrie is pale-skinned and Zach dark-skinned. However, having taken this circuitous route to its main point, the final scenes where the brothers reveal inner feelings through role-play highlight just how much we respond to visual cues in terms of our behaviour. In this respect, the shift in the play is as if Waiting for Godot was only to be played by just two actors.
The drawback to the play, though, is its pacing, as it is far too dragged out for too long. Fortunately, though, the climax is excellently handled, with both actors here looking far more comfortable in their performances. Arguably, the whip-like conclusion still has that initially unsatisfactory dot-dot-dot of “to be continued” about it. However, on reflection, this may have been entirely appropriate, with decades of State-imposed misery and suffering still to follow for millions of South Africans. Indeed, if the truth has set these brothers free, then it is into a world of doomed resignation and silent horror. Camus may well have insisted that we imagine Sisyphus happy. However, the effect of this play is to make the brothers’ tiny existence seem smaller and more tortuous still. Now even dreams have become as poisoned as the water that they live by.