Writer: Athol Fugard
Director: Roy Alexander Weise
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
By 1950, the year in which Athol Fugard’s play is set, the political system of Apartheid was in its infancy, but the social attitudes around which it was founded had much deeper roots. Initially banned in the writer’s native South Africa, ‘Master Harold’…and the boys premiered in the United States in 1982.
Like so many of Fugard’s works, this play transcends the specific context for which it was written and still speaks loudly to modern audiences. The setting is a tea room in Port Elizabeth, realised in gleaming detail by Rajha Shakiry’s set design. It is a rainy afternoon, the customers have gone, leaving the white-coated black waiters, Sam and Willie, to practice the foxtrot for a ballroom dancing competition two weeks ahead. They are joined by Hally (aka Harold), the teenage son of the tea room’s white owners. He is making his way home from school, where he is doing badly, but he consoles himself with the thought that so did Churchill and Tolstoy.
The dignity of Lucian Msamati’s Sam dominates Roy Alexander Weise’s masterful revival. Clearly educated and able to discuss history, literature and philosophy, he is forced to withstand Hally’s rebuke: “don’t try to be too clever, it doesn’t suit you”. Proud but compliant, 45-year-old Sam talks of equality as a Napoleonic principle arising from the French Revolution, but he is in no doubt that equality in his own society is well hidden behind a thick veil of injustice.
Willie (Hammed Animashaun) is Sam’s not too bright junior, pre-occupied with learning steps and finding a partner for the dance competition. At first, Fugard writes the exchanges between “the boys” and Hally as comedy, much of it sharp and very funny when played with the precision that it gets here. However, increasingly, discordant words and phrases puncture the humour until, eventually, the play develops into a drama of blistering intensity.
Anson Boon’s Hally is petulant and precocious, even bossing around his own mother in telephone calls. Having an unhappy family life, the tea room is his second home, Sam and Willie are his friends and the three share happy memories going back many years. Boon brings out the conflict that lies at the heart of the play – that between Hally’s friendships and his ingrained sense of supremacy, both as an employer over employees and, more sinisterly, as a white person over black people.
Fugard’s writing becomes rich with metaphors, such as a ballroom, where dancers never bump into each other being seen as a blissful haven from a world where people are always colliding. Performed in the Lyttelton Theatre over 100 minutes without an interval, Reise’s production is consistently entertaining and deeply moving. As Sam and Willie fox trot gracefully to the sweet voice of Sarah Vaughan, they leave us with thoughts of unrealised hopes and unfulfilled potential, but also of a human spirit that is defiant and irrepressible.
Runs until 17 December 2019 | Image: Helen Murray