Athol Fugard's apartheid dramas still bite in our divided age

New productions of A Lesson from Aloes and Blood Knot forcefully portray a world of claustrophobia, surveillance and the subtleties of racial exclusion

The multiracial plays of Athol Fugard were exemplars of incendiary political theatre in apartheid-era South Africa. So incendiary that Fugard’s passport was confiscated by the authorities after a BBC TV production of The Blood Knot in 1967. His play A Lesson from Aloes was almost banned after its 1978 premiere at the Market theatre in Johannesburg.

As both plays are revived in London, the question is whether they have retained their potency so many years after the end of apartheid.

A Lesson from Aloes (★★★☆☆) is the more overtly political. Directed at the Finborough by Janet Suzman, it is set in an isolated corner of Port Elizabeth. The ANC has just been banned and the nation is in the throes of paranoid surveillance by security police and informers reporting on activists.

Dawid Minnaar, Janine Ulfane as Gladys and David Rubin in A Lesson from Aloes.
Political messages Dawid Minnaar, Janine Ulfane as Gladys and David Rubin in A Lesson from Aloes. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Piet (Dawid Minnaar) is an idealistic Afrikaner who speaks in riddles about freedom and makes strained comparisons between life, resilience and his sturdy aloes – desert plants. Gladys (Janine Ulfane), his wife, has returned from hospital after a mental breakdown and still in a state of distress.

Distrust bubbles between the couple as they await the arrival of Steve (David Rubin), a mixed-race friend whom Piet is rumoured to have betrayed to the security police. Gladys’s emotional fragility and the accusations she angles at Piet give the early scenes their drama and Ulfane draws out her character’s anguish with animated realism.

Mannie Manim’s lighting creates a claustrophobic sense of heat as wine is sunk and accusations are hurled. It is a powerful piece that reflects on how political fear and mistrust can taint individual lives, marriages and friendships, though the emotional pitch is raised early on by the actors and flattens any greater nuance or psychological subtext between them. The play is also heavy on exposition in the first part while its political messages become too pronounced in the second.

Nathan McMullen and Kalungi Ssebandeke in Blood Knot by Athol Fugard at Orange Tree, Richmond.
Politics of colourism … Nathan McMullen and Kalungi Ssebandeke in Blood Knot by Athol Fugard at Orange Tree, Richmond. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Revived at the Orange Tree, Blood Knot (★★★★☆) emerges as the more complex and compelling of the two productions. It was first performed in South Africa with a pioneering interracial cast featuring Fugard himself. The story revolves around two brothers, again in 1960s Port Elizabeth. Morrie (Nathan McMullen) is light-skinned and literate, while Zach (Kalungi Ssebandeke) is dark, illiterate and weary from the “prejudice and inhumanity” he faces every day.

The politics of colourism fuel the power play between them, but subtly at first. Even though Morrie appears to be in service to Zach, washing his brother’s feet and preparing the meals (“I’m helping you, aren’t I, Zach?”), he seems to be in charge.

The drama is deceptively playful, as Zach takes on a romantic penpal (a white woman who thinks he, too, is white). Under Matthew Xia’s deft direction, the penpal ruse escalates into a dangerous fantasy and leads to racialised master-slave role-playing between the brothers.

The action never strays beyond the intimacy of their shabby shack, designed by Basia Binkowska with a frayed, spartan simplicity (a worn floor, two single beds, crates doubling as tables).

The script is layered with psychological games and role reversals, and can be unexpectedly shocking, even for modern audiences. McMullen and Ssebandeke both give striking performances, the power between them shifting: they become more than representations of black oppression or white privilege. As Morrie says, even if he “passes” as white, he cannot fully inhabit the role (“whiteness is not just in the skin”).

By the end, it is hard to tell who dominates whom. There are shades of Sophoclean drama and Cain and Abel. The message, delivered with such complex mastery, is one of brotherhood. Zach and Morrie must choose how to live as “black” and “white” brothers in apartheid South Africa. It is Fugard’s extraordinary achievement that their story feels just as relevant, and resonant, for our times.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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