An intricate play loses momentum with a build too slow to acheive a pay off. Tom Ward reviews Matthew Xia's revival of Athol Fugard's Blood Knot at the Orange Tree Theatre:

Originally published in 1961, and then again with a revised version in 1986, Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot is a wonderfully intricate play about hope and escapism in the time leading up to Apartheid (1948 – 1990s) in South Africa. Fugard brilliantly funnels this epic through the lives of the everyday person, highlighting the sad truth that escapism is impossible for people of colour as a deafening conclusion to an at times playfully innocent text.

Matthew Xia’s production is however, at least for the first half, controlled by the play’s rambling dialogue, which leads to some very boring periods. And even though the play’s final moments are awash with brutality, pace, and dramatically engaging narrative and style choices, there is the overriding question of whether the payoff is worth the waiting.

Blood Knot Orange Tree Theatre

Basia Bińkowska’s set design, a corrugated iron shack in Korsten, Port Elizabeth, instantly localises the geography of the play. Not just any old run down residency, this environment is beautifully specific to Blood Knot’s main characters. A strong sense of place helps the audience understand the importance of the shack as an area of safety and relaxation for the protagonists, Zach (Kalungi Ssebandeke) and Morrie (Nathan McMullen). There’s no superfluousness to the design – everything is used and everything is precious – a wonderful juxtaposition to Blood Knot’s final moments, where excessiveness through privilege invades the sanctity of the space and the lives of Morrie and Zach.

The hollowness of the set, the thinness of its materials, are well utilised by Xana’s sound design, which does not overwhelm the production but adds dimension to what could have been a very rigid space. Like all good sound design, Xana both creates atmosphere and highlights meaning and tension throughout the production.

Blood Knot Orange Tree Theatre

But none of this is enough to to make those first 90 minutes exciting. Blood Knot is such a slow build, a challenge for any director when the space is so intimate. But the pacing, both in the delivery of the dialogue and in the physical pace of the scene change, are too slow as component elements knitted together. And while these all build up the effect of the toll Zack’s laborious job has on his physical and mental state, and the monotony of everyday life, it comes at the detriment to the play’s passage of time.

Both cast members do a fantastic job of building our relationship with their characters, especially the embodiment of their character traits. Ssebandeke is slow and heavy, McMullen light and full of energy to match his hope and desire to escape.

This element of escapism is what really binds Blood Knot together. The characters wish for change, geographically and experientially. It’s a fool’s hope – the shocking last moments of the play reveal that escape is impossible. No matter how much money they save, no matter how big they dream, each individual is socially trapped by their race. And when Morrie realises that the ticket to escape might be through his ability to pass as white, he is corrupted by such knowledge and turns into the very thing that is trapping them in the first place.

Blood Knot Orange Tree Theatre

Kalungi Ssebandeke & Nathan McMullen

Blood Knot is a fascinating play. It jumps between subtle implications and provocatively dramatic statements. But there is no denying the issue of its pacing, both in script and in direction. There are great shining moments, but there is a long wait to get there.

★★★☆☆

Blood Knot plays at Orange Tree Theatre until 20 April 2019. For more information, please visit the venue website.