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FringeReview UK 2019

‘Master Harold’… and the boys

National Theatre, London

Genre: Drama, International, Mainstream Theatre, Political, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Lyttelton


Low Down

Directed by Roy Alexander Weise’s in the NT’s Lyttelton, the set an costumes are designed by Rajha Shakiry, lit by Paule Constable, Shelley Maxwell’s movement direction and choreography, sound design by Giles Thomas. Joel Trill’s the dialect coach. Till December 17th.


In 1991 Athol Fugard recalled how aged 17 in 1950 he did something so shocking it took him half a life to answer it. Even relating it he shuddered.


‘Master Harold’… and the boys from 1982 is his most nakedly autobiographical work. It’s a play that in its 100 minutes broods long, sometimes torpidly, but everything’s laid for the electrifying last half-hour.


As it opens the ‘boys’ – both in their late thirties – enjoy a welcome break, basking in Shelley Maxwell’s movement direction and choreography. Lucian Msamati’s acute, kind Sam instructs Hammed Animashaun’s awkward (and here, younger) Willie on how to glide, in the upcoming ballroom competition that symbolizes their own bid for a life ‘without collisions’ as becomes the aspirational keynote, so hard to maintain. Not least as Willie can’t get his partner to co-operate. Asked when he last beat her? Sam wryly notes that being just four days earlier ‘It takes the romance out of ballroom’. Willie’s such an otherwise gentle character you long to see this contradiction worked out.

‘Master’ Harold is indeed Fugard’s discarded first name, and his Afrikaans mother did run a faded tea shop in Port Elizabeth. Here called Hally in Anson Boon’s clean-jawed debut, there’s a mix of gawkish vulnerability, bright schoolboy assertion and at emotional flashpoints a default into learned patterns that betray everything.


Roy Alexander Weise’s direction in the NT’s Lyttelton patiently lets the language fall and indeed land with room to breathe. At times it seems almost too relaxed and this traditional prosc-arch production shifts out of expectation quite subtly. So in the set designed by Rajha Shakiry, the most striking feature is a a rain-drummed skylight and lowering sky, all lit by Paule Constable who springs another numinous wonder in the closing moments. There’s a back counter beautifully realized with jars and above, a faded Rita Hayworth and Cola posters, saying everything about where the family fit. A ballet of wooden tables, vaguely post Deco, often get shifted about for a clientele that doesn’t show up in the downpour: hence the ballroom practice. With sound design by Giles Thomas – including heart-warming bursts of juke-box (‘You’re the Cream in My Coffee’) – and Joel Trill as dialect coach, the period tang is palpable.


17-year-old Hally skiving from homework is full of ‘civilising’ Sam – the man who’s taken over a paternal role since Hally’s own father is a disabled drunk currently in hospital, but about to be prematurely released. This exercises Hally. For all his talk of ‘magnitude’ and helping Sam spell it, he proclaims: ‘Tolstoy may have educated his peasants but I’ve educated you.’ From ‘primitive… Black’ society. When Sam muses about becoming ‘men of magnitude’ you wonder at his degree of irony.


Boon’s Hally is initially not unsympathetic; it’s clear he’s no ingrained racist, making subsequent behaviour so explosively tragic. Boon starts all gawk and garrulity. He ends a cubit higher in debasing Hally. Having scorned the ‘boys’ dance-world Hally embraces it with a rather underscored symbolism as ‘a world without collisions…’ As Sam says, ‘It’s like living in a dream about a world where accidents don’t happen.’


Msamati’s Sam exudes restraint, sadness and contained explosiveness. Msamati has the gift too of darting Sam‘s active intelligence within the bounds of kindness: his continual implied challenge of Hally’s callow proclamations about everything from schoolwork to civilisation itself. Tellingly there’s a lyrical recall with a sting, about kite-building and flying with its paternal motives; and the reason Sam leaves Hally on a particular bench to return home.


Animashaun’s role might be slighter, but he takes a compassionate initiative late on. Again there’s contained fury that gains dignity in its refusal to enact it. Animashaun moves from comic foil to someone who apprehends tragedy; a giant noting the fall of a sparrow. It’s an index of his growth as an actor.


It’s a play that reverberates for that last half-hour, where you see everything reaped. Even here there’s a residual sense of drag but this vanishes. It’s different from Fugard’s early realist work like the recently-revived 1961 Blood Knot (Orange Tree) exploring racial divisions between brothers. Or collaborative work like Sizwe Banzi Is Dead from 1973 (last seen at the Young Vic, 2011) co-written like other plays with Winston Ntshona and John Kani: that embraces an exuberant Brechtian vaudeville with savage political irony. ‘Master Harold’… and the boys turns away from such serrated modernism to an almost Ibsen-like reveal. This layered, ever-patient reading refuses to hurry and mostly it pays off, lending the ‘boys’ a monumental power of endurance, a glide into a future they can never personally arrive at.


Relaying that interview to a Zimbabwe academic, at the time Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel in 1991, he riposted: ‘They’ll never give it to Fugard. Too edgy, too dangerous, too powerful.’ If true, it damns our gentility but only reinforces Fugard’s stature. Not least in this mostly terrific revival.