‘Master Harold’…and the Boys at the National Theatre: ‘Once it takes off, it absolutely soars’
A programme note from playwright Athol Fugard reveals that ‘Master Harold’… and the Boys was written as an apology. It is, he writes, ‘probably the most intensely personal thing I have ever written’, and by goodness does it show.
The setting is a tearoom in Port Elizabeth in 1950. Sam (Lucian Msamati) and Willie (Hammed Animashaun) are completing the final bits of cleaning before shutting for the night. Willie is also trying to learn a quickstep with Sam’s guidance. Hally (Anson Boon) then enters, the son of the tearoom’s owner, and whilst his relationship seems affable with both men though especially with Sam with whom there is a father-son dynamic, occasional details reveal his racial bias.
Whether it be Sam’s love of the ballroom becoming an ethnographic study (the ‘war-dance has been replaced with the waltz’) or Hally’s nonchalant disavowal of Willie’s mental capacity (‘I haven’t been wasting my time in talking to you’), Fugard’s writing manages to pivot from happiness to disgust or sadness with a supple dexterity .
Rajha Shakiry’s tearoom set, with cakes on display and a jukebox, is delightful but also a striking metaphor for Sam and Willie’s supposed independence. As the play opens, all the tables are put aside and the men are able to move freely. As the show progresses, the tables are arranged and the space must be navigated by the men just as their relationship with Hally becomes fraught. At the end, a touching dance between Sam and Willie (with choreography by Shelley Maxwell) sees the space completely transformed.
One of the harder technical elements to master when ballroom dancing is the rise and fall: step forward and gently rise up and then to the side one falls slightly. This play is likewise full of such momentum, though perhaps the first half of the piece is too gentle: amidst the long imaginative monologues of Sam and Hally the pace of the show suffers. But it is all worth it, however, as when Hally’s vicious side emerges all the minor details revealed before that drawn with a disgustingly vivid amount of detail.
This is a distinguished cast. Msamati’s grandeur soon pulls the audience into a tight hold and refuses to let go. Animashaun’s Willie also contributes to the play’s critique of masculinity: he seems a gentle giant but the reason his wife no longer dances with him is because he beats her, complicating our response to this character. Nonetheless, Animashaun does a fine job. Boon as Hally is the most complicated: he is juvenile but also at points too much. Yet Hally’s monstrous potential is horrifically realised by Boon and his performance deserves praise.
Once ‘Master Harold’… and the Boys takes off, it absolutely soars. The performances director Roy Alexander Weise has managed to pull from the cast astound and the design is of the highest standard one expects from the National Theatre. Amidst such times when racial violence seems so prevalent, this is a pressing and necessary piece for us all to spark a debate about the discourses that shape us, whether we realise it or not.
‘Master Harold’…and the Boys is at the National Theatre until 7 December.
Photograph credit: Helen Murray