Review Master Harold and The Boys, National Theatre
PUBLISHED: 10:49 04 October 2019
Copyright Helen Murray 2019
Semi-autobiographical tale of 50s South Africa is full of self loathing but showcases the talents of Lucien Msamati and Hammed Animashaun
The great South African playwright Athol Fugard's Master Harold…and the boys was banned in his native country in 1982 following its first staging.
While the form is dated, this impassioned revival of the play, confidently directed by Roy Alexander Weise, highlights the continuing relevance of its central message: racism learnt in childhood diminishes our humanity.
Black waiters Sam and Willy work in a tearoom in a 1950s boarding house in Port Elizabeth. The set, designed by Rajha Shakiry, is gloriously picaresque: rain beats down on a skylight, jars of sweets, cakes and bottles of beer are neatly stacked on shelves; an advert displays a beautiful blonde enjoying Coca-Cola.
This is the confined world where stocky, slow-witted Willy practises ballroom dance in preparation for the annual New Brighton championships, schooled by his patient, long-time colleague Sam.
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Enter the boss's privileged white 17-year old son Hally [Harold], in charge while his mother is at the hospital bedside of his crippled father.
The dynamic between Sam and Hally is impressively layered: master/slave, surrogate father/ son, best friends who educate one another - morality from Sam, textbook facts courtesy of Hally's homework. When Sam and Willy attempt to explain the significance of the ballroom championships in a broader cultural sense - a place where harmony and grace unify, where racism has no home because there are no literal or metaphorical collisions, their passion is lost on this very lost boy.
For over half of its 100 minute running time, the dialogue is pleasingly traditional, a little unremarkable but certainly informative about the social mores of daily life under apartheid. And if you favour plays loaded with symbolism look no further. The role of Hally is a somewhat poisoned chalice for Anson Boon who does a good job of conveying Hally's shifts between deep affection, cowardice and cruelty.
But Fugard's self-loathing for his childhood community - the play is loosely based on his own experience - limits the characterand Boon's default delivery is rather shrill. But as a showcase for the exceptionally gifted Lucian Msamati as intelligent, principled Sam and the delightfully nimble-footed Hammed Animashaun as Willy this production is exceptional.