In Conversation with the cast of Blood Knot


Audiences across South Africa have welcomed level 1, as it brings more benefits of a “normal setting” especially in the entertainment industry, in relation to live performances. The Market Theatre has commissioned the run of world renowned Athol Fugard play, Blood Knot and invited Actor Spaces to an exclusive rehearsal.

Mncedisi Shabangu Image Mlungisi Mlungwana for Actor Spaces

The two-hander is performed by Mncedisi Shabangu and Francois Jacobs, an awesome duo and a pleasure to watch and speak to during the rehearsal. Both hailing from Mpumalanga Mbombela, they affectionately call themselves, “The Mbombela Brothers” they show a true sense of brotherhood, mutual respect and open heartedness.

In preparation for the opening on the 15th of October 2021, here is what The Mbombela Brothers had to share with our writer John-Otto Phike about the play and the love of theatre.

JOHN-OTTO: We are in level 1, this finally works in our favor as artists as more audiences can come to the theatre, what does this mean to/for you?

FRANCOIS: It’s pretty exciting. It’s never nice to play for an empty audience and I love feeding off of bodies in the space. People are hungry to come out to the theatre, which is great. Overall, fantastic news for the industry as a whole.

MNCEDISI: I am excited to perform for a live audience. I have been engaging in debates with Artistic Directors, including James Ngcobo, about the state of theatre in Covid. The reality is theatre is not like tv and film. If theatre moves in the direction of tv and film, in relation to performing for video, then what is the point of theatre? My biggest fear as a theatre maker was the possibility of theatre getting swallowed by tv and film, which would be bad for its future. Level 1 is good because it puts theatre back to its original form, which is live performance.

JOHN-OTTO: Considering that many industries were impacted by the pandemic and not as active as normal, how did you “keep ready/prepared” in those quiet times?

FRANCOIS: All actors approach it differently. I feel like any sort of performing keeps you sharp but theatre is a specific art away from film and tv. We are both genuinely into film, soaps and television and I think that just keeps the brain active, it keeps your response time sharp, but you have to do theatre to stay sharp at theatre.

MNCEDISI: In a nutshell we ran away to television and film. It was a frustrating time for me as a freelance actor. We had nothing. So when you hear that there is an opportunity to work in television but theatres are closed, you keep on acting.

JOHN-OTTO: What makes Blood Knot such a classic for theatre goers and why do you think Blood Knot is the perfect play to run in celebration of 45 years of the Market Theatre?

FRANCOIS: This is Athol Fugard, The Market Theatre, James Ngcobo and us. I think it speaks for itself, Athol has been engraved in every bit and piece of this theatre, throughout all the plays that have been brought from his side to here. I think it’s a big honour for us to be doing this sort of play, even having Athol here to come and see it.

MNCEDISI: The play was first performed in 1961 by Athol himself, playing Morris and the late Zakes Mokae playing Zacariah. So our biggest responsibility would be how to fit into those shoes. That creates excitement because you want to be in a play that was performed by the greats. At the same time you are not filling anybody’s shoes, you are putting in your own footprints as an actor. But those footprints are huge. When we speak of Zakes Mokae, we’re speaking about a big South African Hollywood star. When you are speaking about Athol Fugard, you are speaking about one of the biggest writers and producers on big stages all over the world. Blood Knot is a fantastic play, the dilemmas that the play deals with and the questions that it raises, are very personal.

JOHN-OTTO: The theme of Hope is threaded in this story, what does Hope mean to you in this new normal of Covid?

MNCEDISI: After all of the rubbish that Morris and Zachariah go through, Zachariah at the end of the play asks Morris a question that changes both their lives. He says, “what do we call this? Me here and you here, what do we make of it?” The famous answer from Morris is, “home.” So that is it, that is the balance for me.

FRANCOIS: Morris decided to run away at some stage until the problem they were facing disappeared. Everybody faces a lot of problems and challenges in their lives. What we are trying to portray is do you run away or do you stay and stand your ground and see it through? I think that is definitely a theme that people can take from here and into their lives out there. The question is who are you? Are you the one that stands and sees it through or are you the one that runs away? Covid, it has been challenging and people have been running away and people have been standing their ground and saying they will fight. It’s personal, it’s what you make of it. We just put the question out there, people have to make that decision themselves.

JOHN-OTTO: This is a very heavy story, were there some moments where you had to distance yourself in order to find the actor in the character? What did you do to create that distance?

MNCEDISI: If you mention the word distance, it means a lack of enthusiasm from execution. As actors, we are people who dive into the lion’s den and we do it without fear because we are spiritual people. I always say, let the Gods speak, then I take it from there. We just have to look at each other and go for it. We just have to do it and face it because that is the beauty in it. We get to surprise each other, challenge each other, question ourselves and each other at the same time. Acting is one of things that I do not fear, I cannot fear a character because that character is me. I am not looking for Zachariah in somebody else, I am Zachariah.

FRANCOIS: It’s as simple as putting on the shoes and the suit, then taking it off and leaving it at the theatre. You go real deep once you put on the skin of the character. That in its totality is a thing of its own and once we leave here, we are just all Francois and Mncedisi.

JOHN-OTTO: What is the significance behind the characters engaging in constant role-playing?

MNCEDISI: Shakespeare says, “The world’s a stage and we are all players.” We all play roles. I am a father, I have to play the role of a father. In this particular story I do not take it as role playing but I take it as little demonstrations of what the characters are trying to illustrate to each other. That is not roleplaying, that is Zachariah demonstrating to Morris what he sees.

FRANCOIS: They make sort of a game out of it until it starts getting real and it starts hitting close to home. I think they explore the unknown in that sense. Morris is struggling with finding himself and also exploring within himself. He explores all these different ways and manners by making games out of it and maybe in his mind he is just making his reality a bit easier.

JOHN-OTTO: What responses do you hope this play evokes in younger audiences that are removed from the Apartheid lived experience?

FRANCOIS: Its not really an apartheid story, its about finding an inner identity more than an outer identity. I think that is what people can actually look forward to because it’s not another political story. This is a situation that a lot of people find themselves in.

MNCEDISI: In the 60s, a black actor and a white actor were not allowed on the same stage and these were the politics of the time. Athol wrote this play so that a white person and a black person can be on stage together. Now we are allowed, by law. So the perspective of the play changes immediately. This is a play that explores what is the meaning of brotherhood and in this country right now, we are struggling to define what brotherhood is. This is what the play is exploring.

Mncedisi Shabangu-James Ngcobo (Director) Image Mlungisi Mlungwana for Actor Spaces

JOHN-OTTO: What have you learnt from being directed by James Ngcobo?

FRANCOIS: This is my first time working with James Ngcobo as a director and I think he is amazing and passionate. He really digs deep into the root of what he wants and he always gets it because he’s got the right approach with actors. I found this process a bit frightening at first but he made me feel safe. We still have a few miles to go before opening week but I am sure the work is still gonna come out amazingly.

MNCEDISI: I am lucky that I was on stage with him once, we did a show together and I also worked on the first play that he directed here at the Market Theatre, The Suitcase. Now 16 years later, we are doing Blood Knot. He is one of those directors that make you want to open the show on the first day of rehearsals. There is no pressure because his passion rubs off on you as the actor. He is a good motivator, teacher, colleague and he listens. That is what you need from a director in order to trust them.

JOHN-OTTO: Why is it so important for us to build a loyal theatre audience base?

Francois Jacobs Image Mlungisi Mlungwana for Actor Spaces

FRANCOIS: You can’t beg people to come to the theatre, it’s either it’s in you or not. I think you can spread the word as much as you like but if you don’t feel it, then please do not come. We do not want someone sitting here and dreading every single moment, which I highly doubt that would happen. You need to move people with theatre. Thank goodness for social media that we can reach people nowadays but I think theatre goers are people that actually respect the craft. Even those who do not know it come here and just want to keep on coming.

MNCEDISI: I have heard of couples who got married because they were watching me perform. It was their first time watching theatre and what they saw was beautiful. That’s how they fell in love. They came to watch a play I was doing upstairs and they were courting each other at that time. The play moved them so much that they ended up crying and falling into each other’s arms. That sort of propelled the relationship even further because they didn’t just find their love, they found their soft spots, they were moved by the same thing, so that is what theatre does. They even invited me to come to their wedding. This is something that was recorded. Read a book that was written by Bonnie Henna, called “Eyebags and Dimples”. The Market Theatre took a play overseas, performed by Mbogeni Ngema and Percy Mthwa. A drunk guy walked in and started making noise, after 30 seconds of making noise, he looked on stage, had a moment of reflection and decided to sit down and watch the play. At the end of the play he stood up and gave the play a standing ovation. That is the power of theatre, theatre transforms you. In some countries people are born with a birthright to watch theatre. You go to a country like Sweden and you will never find someone who hasn’t watched theatre. The government makes sure that they watch theatre because theatre changes society. That is the mirror that we do not have.

Speaking with these gentlemen reminded us of the essence of theatre, the beauty and conversations that it allows for us to engage in and really reflect on life in the most genuine way.

Blood Knot will do its run at the Market Theatre from Friday 15 October – Saturday 14 November 2021, a must watch, let’s celebrate this production and the platform that is the Market Theatre.

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