Master Harold and the Boys (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Athol Fugard’s 1982 play was written when South Africa was still in the throes of apartheid, and yet it still cuts deep today with its economical writing and moments of light and dark.

Sam and Willie run a restaurant on behalf of a white family they have served for years. They are preparing for one of the biggest events of the year: a dance competition in New Brighton. Willie is practising the foxtrot when we first see him. He’s large and a bit clumsy, but keen.

Sam is a wiry and proud man with grace and intelligence. Where Willie rails indiscriminately against his lot in life, Sam understands completely the issues of prejudice and discrimination. You see it in his eyes and in his body language as the play progresses.

Lucian Msamati in Master Harold and the Boys
Lucian Msamati in Master Harold and the Boys

Harold (known to the “boys” as Hally) comes to the restaurant for dinner, to do his homework, and lock up. He seems affable enough, joking and reminiscing about his childhood hiding in the servants’ quarters, but now and again he betrays his white privilege with something he says or does, and an anecdote about a kite is uneasy and not what it seems.

Now and again Master Harold is shocking – and cleverly makes no one character unsympathetic. The plight of black South Africans who are poorly educated and dismissed as sub-human natives is clearly defined in asides about segregation, not hammering the issue home but slowly building up the picture.

Lucian Msamati is superb as the wise Sam, who has stood for so long as surrogate father to the needy Hally, protecting him against the weakness of his drunken dad. As Willie, Hammed Aninashaun creates a memorable character given to moments of violence, but illuminated by the power of music.

Hammad Aninashaun and Anson Boon in Master Harold and the Boys
Hammad Aninashaun and Anson Boon in Master Harold and the Boys

For me, Anson Boon wasn’t quite there with the contradictory role of Hally. It is a difficult role for a stage debut but the accent wavered too much and I found him unconvincing in the later, pivotal scenes. This is a scared little boy trying to assert the authority he’s been born to, and on the page – I have read the play through a few times – his plot trajectory and treatment of his long-time friends makes more of an impact.

Director Roy Alexander Weise deftly manages the mood of Fugard’s complex text, pulling the audience up short in shock just when laughter still simmers in the auditorium. Designer Rajha Shakiry’s wooden tables, expansive skylight and prominent jukebox, catches the mood of a country in one place and time.

Master Harold is both a play of its time and a play for all time. Once Hally leaves, shrunk to the frame of a schoolboy who has been caught in the act of something terrible, Sam and Willie find themselves dancing, in that magical moment where the world is outside and inside in the warmth, all is well. It’s an emotional moment.

Hammad Aninashaun and Lucian Msamati in Master Harold and the Boys
Hammad Aninashaun and Lucian Msamati in Master Harold and the Boys

Master Harold ran at the National Theatre until 17 December. I saw its final performance. Photo credits Helen Murray.

LouReviews purchased a ticket to see Master Harold and the Boys.

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