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Ground Breaking South African Theatre at the National, London
‘Master Harold’ … and the boys was written by South African playwright, Athol Fugard. It is hard to overestimate Fugard’s importance in South African theatre and the ground-breaking nature of his oeuvre of plays created during the Apartheid era. These were the days when black actors were not allowed into ‘whites-only’ theatres. Two of South Africa’s most acclaimed actors who worked closely with Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, had to pretend to be Fugard’s driver and gardener in order to meet with him to rehearse.
Fugard’s plays were often banned in South Africa and ‘Master Harold’ … and the boys premiered abroad in the US in 1982. In South Africa, Fugard’s plays found their way into experimental theatres where performances were monitored by the security forces. I saw the Cape Town production of ‘Master Harold’ in 1983 and wondered how this play would travel, decades later, to the stage of the National Theatre in London.
The play is semi-autobiographical, telling a story from Fugard’s own childhood. It is set in 1950 in the provincial city, Port Elizabeth, and depicts the adolescent boy, Hally, returning from school, bored and frustrated by his education. He spends his afternoons in his mother’s tearoom where he passes the time with two employees, Sam and Willie. On this particular day, Hally’s mother is absent, having been called to the hospital to collect her husband who is having treatment for an amputated leg. Clearly there are tensions in the family – Hally’s father is an alcoholic – and Hally is distraught that his father is returning home.
The deep friendship between the older men and Sam’s role as a surrogate father to Hally is sensitively portrayed with humour and poignancy. This is, after all, a play written in the Apartheid era where a friendship of this sort was not encouraged. Hally’s parents instruct him to insist that the men treat him with respect due to him being a person with a white skin. Throughout the afternoon Hally, Sam and Willie reminisce about the times Hally has spent since his young childhood with the men in their outdoor room with the most basic amenities, a typical feature of domestic employees’ accommodation during the Apartheid era.
Hally shares his learning at school with Sam and Willie, a scene that is both very funny and equally tragic as while Hally rejects his education, telling them that Winston Churchill was also not good at schoolwork, Sam and Willie have been denied anything but a rudimentary education by the Apartheid system.
While Hally might facilitate Sam’s expanding vocabulary, Sam’s purpose is to teach Hally how to be a man, to have pride in himself rather than the shame he carries about his invalid, drunk father. He wants to teach Hally how to step away from his inbred racism and abusing his position as a white man as is his inevitable future unless he chooses to make a stand against it.
Throughout the play, Sam and Willie prepare for the forthcoming ballroom dancing championships to be held in the segregated township where they live. This is both an escape from the brutal reality of racism in 1950s South Africa, as well as an enormously popular pastime. Followers of Strictly Come Dancing will be familiar with two of the most successful South African ballroom dancers in contemporary times – sisters Oti and Motsi Mabuse. But ballroom dancing is also used symbolically, as a metaphor for a society of which South Africans could only dream – a space where people do not collide. It is a fantasy space where people can escape the daily degradation of the master-slave relationship imposed by a racist regime.
The drama in Master Harold and the Boys juxtaposes the safe and beautiful world of ballroom dancing with a brutal confrontation between Hally and Sam. Hally is immersed in an agony of pain and confusion, loving a father of whom he is ashamed. The shame and impotence infect him and when it reaches an unbearable point, he literally projects it onto his surrogate father figure, Sam, who has nurtured him emotionally throughout his childhood. Sam, in a moment of the deepest dignity and emotional insight, rises above the humiliation Hally inflicts on him and explains that the boy has debased him from the safety of his white skin.
Fugard presents a psychological portrayal of the wounded boy, Hally, inflicting pain and humiliation on those with even less power than himself. In Apartheid South Africa, black men were often referred to as ‘boys’ by white people and Fugard uses this term to reveal the powerlessness of Sam and Willy in relation to a white child. Yet, Sam is Hally’s emotional support and father figure, a man against whom Hally rails, wanting to impress him and yet lording over him, becoming increasingly menacing and racist as his own frustration and powerlessness grow.
Fugard’s script is as fresh today as when it was written in the 1980s. It is poetic, poignant, brutal, gentle, philosophical and deeply political. It is a thing of beauty while uncomfortable and painful to watch. When the play reaches its dramatic climax, the audience gasped in shock. It is a brilliant piece of theatre, well-directed by Roy Alexander Weise. The well-designed set by Rajha Shakiry is a typical 1950s era tearoom where creative use of the tables and chairs makes them part of the action.
Lucian Msamati in the role of Sam was superb – ebullient, light on his feet, curious, compassionate and dignified in the face of racism and humiliation by a child who represents the hateful Apartheid system. Willie, played by Hammed Animashaun, is the less articulate foil to Sam – who tries to teach Willie not only to control his temper but how to make dancing look easy. The physical contrast between the short stature of Sam and the tall Willy adds to the humour. Anson Boon was perhaps too shrill as Hally, his acting seemed a bit forced at times and hopefully, he will settle into the role. This is, in fact, his first stage role. His attempt at a South African accent falls short of the mark and is rather distracting. But, he is not alone in that, there have been a number of plays on in London recently where actors have been called on to produce a particular South African accent. I have yet to find even far more experienced actors who have succeeded.
‘Master Harold’ … and the boys is a resounding success and highly recommended. Fugard has spoken about how he wrote the play to expose his own guilt about the events he portrays in the drama. He takes the audience into his past and into South Africa’s past. While Apartheid is over, racism is not, neither in South Africa nor elsewhere. The play has lost none of its meaning and importance and sadly continues to resonate today.
Master Harold and the Boys runs at the Lyttelton until 17 December
You may also be interested in reading our review of Hansard. also showing at the Lyttelton, National Theatre until 25th November. Or check our preview of the full autumn 2019 season at the National Theatre.
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