Master Harold and the Boys: When the Relatively Ordinary Becomes Catastrophic

Saturday 2nd November 2019 at the National Theatre.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys is a pretty excellent creation. It’s fascinating in its approach to plucking the rotten fruit of history and placing it before us while simultaneously providing us with a very recognisable and relatable dynamic. In this instance however, the rather ordinary behaviours of a spoilt and troubled youngster take on a hideously grim gravity within the setting of Apartheid-bound South Africa.

Director Roy Alexander Weise ensures recognition of the various shades of meaning in Fugard’s work. While the piece ends on a resoundingly grim note with just a touch of moving optimism and hope, there’s plenty of joy and laughter in Fugard’s story. Universal themes of friendship and family are beautifully embedded and it’s around those themes Fugard builds his tale.

We meet the workers of a tea room – a 1950s establishment in Port Elizabeth brought into being with no detail overlooked by set and costume designer Rajha Shakiry. The duo are very taken with their hobby of ballroom dancing (Shelley Maxwell’s choreography and movement direction are wonderful highlights). Despite casual references to domestic violence, the pair gain generous laughs very quickly. Willie (Hammed Animashaun) is the younger of the pair who looks to the older and much wiser Sam (Lucian Msamati) for advice in all things – their chemistry is fantastic.

The shop belongs to a white woman and her son Hally (Anson Boon) has taken up residence at the cafe after school hours, chatting away to Willie and Sam while helping himself to mum’s profits and stock as all entitled little rich boys might well do. There are flickers of acknowledgement that while Hally is on good terms with the African-American staff and feels a comfortable connection with them, they are not equals, and despite the usual dynamic between child and adults, they are certainly not to be minded; there’s no damaging pandering to the ‘white saviour’ trope here. Hally’s warped sense of entitlement and distinction so natural to the privileged will however prove to inflate to catastrophic proportions and it’s in the fluidity of the relationships depicted that Fugard’s writing really grips and holds tight.

Performances are uniformly excellent but Msamati gives an outstanding performance which stays with us long after we leave the auditorium. Animashaun masters the art of the character who listens and reacts to everything around him until his time comes to shine. And when Willie’s time arrives, Animashaun delivers with full force. Boon gives a performance dripping with petulance and naivety with a dangerous edge – the totality of his childishness make his actions all the more disturbing and the depth of his terror all the deeper. It’s writing and a performance best described by the child in front of me who declared as the house lights rose ‘I wanted to punch the boy in the face’. It’s certainly a visceral play evoking a guttural and lasting response. 

Then there’s Msamati, whose gravitas, warmth and incredibly moving quiet dignity provides the true catalyst for our potent responses. In Sam we find the hero of the story, the heart of the relationships depicted and the epicentre of devastation. It’s a performance full of silent meaning and unspoken anxieties and pains alongside rousing speeches full of immense morality and wealth of knowledge. Sam, I suspect, is always a powerful and deeply moving character in any production of Master Harold and the Boys but it has to be said that Msamati is thoroughly brilliant. In those closing moments with Willie and Sam’s gentle attempt to heal each other, there’s not a heart untouched.

Fugard’s play doesn’t preach, but demonstrates in no uncertain terms the message of the piece with great skill. The language is explosive with inherent insults. The casual exchanges belie darker realities caught up in the language used which gradually takes its fully formed grotesque shape. Ballroom dancing as a backdrop to the central action places Sam and Willie firmly in the position of civilised, cultured men in direct contrast to the underdeveloped and overly pacified young Hally, whose petulance places him equally firmly in the role of the reckless, selfish youth. We watch closely as the three navigate a deeply complex association and while there’s an unfortunate void of a middle section which disappointingly loses momentum and interest, the surrounding exchanges and developments make the play an excellent and important piece of theatre.

Fugard tells us in the programme that this play ‘is probably the most intensely personal thing I have ever written’, and it shows. The play is a sensitive and brutally blunt take on the damaging dynamics created by Apartheid and its regimes designed to ingrain segregation in identities as well as law. The characters are based on real men who, in Fugard’s heartfelt words, ‘ushered me from boyhood into manhood’. The charming pair, fleshed out here with humour, warmth and an incredible sense of dignity, left an indelible mark on the man who went on to write this play. Just how much of the action depicted in the play is accurate is untold, but if the actions of Hally in the play mirror those of the playwright, the sense of retribution and need for redemption are glaringly evident and wholly realised.

Master Harold and the Boys plays the National Theatre until December 17th 2019 and you can find tickets here. It’s an intensive 1hr 40, without interval, which is exactly right for a production of this nature. Highly recommended.

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