Review: Taut ties that connect and unite us in engrossing production of Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot- the Naledi nominated production- on at the Baxter, Cape Town

Blood Knot by Athol Fugard- presented by the Baxter Theatre in Association with the Market Theatre

Where: The Baxter Golden Arrow Studio
When and times: May from 11 to 28, 2022 at 7.30pm nightly, with Saturday matinees at 2.30pm
Bookings at webtickets:

Performers: Mncedisi Shabangu and Francois Jacobs
Director: James Ngcobo
Lighting design: Mannie Manim
Props and set: Nadya Cohen
Costumes: Noluthando Lobese
Soundscape: Dean Pitman

Athol Fugard’s, Blood Knot is not an ‘easy’ play to watch. It poses uncomfortable questions, sure but wow, it is a theatre journey which is intensely visceral with a jolt to the senses. It is a production with vivid performances by Mncedisi Shabangu and Francois Jacobs, with the brilliant James Ngcobo in the director’s seat. Ngcobo is a storyteller theatre maker.  He brings a lightness to Blood Knot which is dark at its core but he teases out the mirth on the edges – which brings out relief and release. It is a production which is positioned in hyper realism. We are sitting in the narrative (theatre in the round) and must face the story. We cannot look away. Mannie Manim’s lighting plot does not shroud the protagonists in the dark. There are transitions (rather than black-outs as in the script, explained Manim), when the protagonists are lit by saturated hues of cerise pink, lime green, cobalt blue – like shots of energy. For moments- there is a magical transcendence- beyond the faded green interior of the room that they inhabit (design by the award winning Nadya Cohen). This production of Blood Knot, presented by the Baxter in association with the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, is a must-experience piece of audacious theatre. It is bold. It is daring. It is a mind flip of a theatre outing. Blood Knot received five Naledi Theatre nominations, including Best Director, Lead Performance in a Play, Production, Lighting and Sound Design. The awards were announced last night (May 16, 2022). Unfortunately this excellent, multi layered and rich production did not garner any awards.

Generating much needed conversations – a take-home message of hope

I attended the opening on the weekend at the Baxter and the conversations at the after gathering, were fierce and passionate. There were strings of conversations which were heated as to casting (we will get to that) and questions why this 1960s ‘political’ play is being staged now, in 2022. That is what great live theatre does – it pulls you in and holds your attention- makes you think and process- and engage with others.

There is a lot to process in Blood Knot which was first staged in 1961. It is  a play of its time, in Apartheid South Africa but the period aspect of the text, under the directorship of Ngcobo, frames it as a play that resonates very much as a text of now- South Africa in 2022- for bad and good. The bad is the utter bleakness and despair of two brothers, bound together in grinding poverty, in a routine of slog. The good is that they are connected by blood and through their imagination, creativity and capacity to dream, they are able to transfigure the commonplace of the mundane. In his director’s note in the programme, Ngcobo muses how we have glimpsed “hope popping up on the horizon” and as “jump back in despair and hopelessness”, a “litany of questions” are raised. He asks: “Do we still have a South African Dream or is it a South African Delusion?”

The take-home for me, despite the bleakness and despair inherent in this narrative, is that this production is a call-out for hope. No matter what, we must strive to make things work. Morris keeps prodding Zach that one day if they keep working, they may own a two-man farm. Ahh, to be at home on the land. Is it a delusion and illusion and will they never break out of their existence? We must be hopeful- keep winding our alarm clocks and keep going. If we can harness our strengths in our homes and support each other, then perhaps we can manifest a ‘better’ life. I am reminded of the aphorism that no matter where you go, you take yourself with you. You may think that you have left a life behind, shed the bits you don’t want to shoulder, but you carry your identity with you. I think that Ngcobo deftly pivots away from Apartheid era struggle play to a play about the complexity of relationships, family, competiveness, connections, disconnections, loyalties. I think that we can look to that and reflect on what that means and how we can navigate our situations.

Length of Blood Knot – this production clicks in at 90 minutes so don’t be afraid

I had not seen Blood Knot on stage, although I had read extracts of the script. I knew that it is a seminal and important play but had been put off by the running time of other productions. For instance, in 2012, it was staged in New York at the Signature Theatre. The duration was 2 hours 30 minutes, with a 15 minute interval At the opening at the Baxter on the weekend, I spoke to serval people who had seen other productions and the first thing that they said was that it was wonderful to see the text trimmed as it had been way too long in their previous viewings.

The story… in brief

The two hander pivots around two brothers. They had the same mother but due to the difference in the hue of their skin colour, they have led very different lives in Apartheid, South Africa.  In this production, the “dark skinned” brother, Zachariah (Zach) is played by Mncedisi Shabangu and Francois Jacobs plays Morris who has been able to pass as “white”. Due to his “whiteness” he has had opportunities which Zach has not had. For instance, Morris can read and write. Zach cannot. Morris returns from his life of passing as something else, to be with his brother in the suburb of Korsten in Port Elizabeth.

Pen pals and the ping with social media

In their boxed in room, the brothers enter into a pen-pal correspondence, I will not pot spoil as to what happens but suffice to say that the pen-pal mode of expression resonates now in terms of social media, in our times. If the play was set now, the brothers would be on Tinder- creating and inventing personas. No one knows the ‘real’ you on social media. Fugard conjured this up in his text, in 1961 and in 2022, Ngcobo while retaining the ’60s period, makes it ping, for me, evoking the landscape of social media – without inserting it directly into the play. Well, that was how it pinged for me – how people invent themselves on social media- becoming someone else- passing as someone else. It is all fine – until you have to meet in-person.

Clothes as embalm tic of identity

In this production, as signified by the cream outfit that Morris dons, we know that once he was well off. His neatly pressed clothes are pitted by holes and rips but the fabric cannot be mended. From a distance, Morris looks well put together but he is a wreck. Noluthando Lobese has conjured up his past and present in his outfit. The brothers inhabit a sparsely furnished room – with two single beds and the rudiments of a life of grinding poverty and hopelessness. Nadya Cohen’s design demarcates their shared quarters – bare – however- each piece of furniture, floor covering is heightened in terms of being a repository and container of past and present.


At the opening, there was contention by some of the young theatre makers that Morris – the light skinned brother ‘should have’ been played by an actor of colour. I think that Francois Jacobs is excellent and convincing in the role as someone trying to “pass” as someone else but I do take the points of the theatre makers’ concerns. The synergy between Shabangu and Jacobs, is fabulous. Watch their gestures as they feed off silences and the un-sayable. At the start, Morris takes the lunchbox tin from Zach as he enters the room and the looks that pass between them is a masterclass in gripping theatre. That is offset by a scene which involves the brothers quibbling about the price of salts for soaking Zach’s sore feet. It is very Seinfeld/Larry David. These actors bring pathos, tenderness, rage and so much to their characters. Do not miss this engrossing production.

✳ Images supplied.