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Review: "Master Harold"... and the Boys

10th March 20

Laura Davidson

The Fugard Theatre never disappoints. Its tenth birthday production of Athol Fugard's "Master Harold"... and the Boys, directed by Greg Karvellas, is no exception.

The play, considered to be semi-autobiographical, encapsulates the poignant reminiscences of white schoolboy Harold (‘Hally’) and Sam, his mother’s black employee. It’s a three-handed play with no interval - an intense proposition for the cast, all of whom must remain on stage for the entirety (with Hally arriving very shortly after curtain-up). We’re propelled back to the 1950s to a “stripped down monochrome version” of the actual St. George’s Park Tea Room in Port Elizabeth, which the Director created using original photos and floor plans. Drumming rain (with sound by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder), relentless raindrop shadows flowing down cleverly-lit windows (with lighting by set designer Wolf Britz), and a simple grey and uncluttered stage set the atmosphere. This, along with the lack of set change and interval, hones the focus entirely onto the interrelationships between the three characters. Their combined histories are revealed incrementally through the jig-saw puzzle of memory, wonderfully rendered by Fugard’s beautiful language. 

The cast is extremely talented; it’s not easy for the actors to maintain the intensity of the emotions bubbling under the surface without a break.  Desmond Dube is excellent as stalwart Sam; a mentor to both Hally and Willie.  Siya Mayola is believable as the flawed Willie, who frets that his girlfriend and dance partner fails to practise enough to win an impending ballroom competition. It takes Sam to highlight for him the link between his girlfriend’s absence and the casual domestic violence which he perpetrates upon her.  26-year-old Kai Luke Brummer (soon to make his debut in acclaimed film ‘Moffie’) plays 17-year-old schoolboy Hally, but his clipped schoolboy speech and childish shrugs and head rolls make suspension of disbelief easy.  

It’s only two years after the vile introduction of apartheid, and Hally continues to have a fond relationship with Sam; the positive father-figure he needs to fill the void created by his disabled, alcoholic father. Sam has nurtured Hally through childhood and puberty with gentle support, and in turn, the schoolboy has helped provide his mentor with the education denied to him by class and racial division. We’re swept back in time to the makeshift kite lovingly created for Hally by Sam, symbolic of the freedom he craves which sharply contrasts the ‘whites only’ bench from which he’s excluded. Indeed, freedom and justice are subtle themes running throughout. Ballroom dancing is a poignant escape for the two black men, who struggle to find meaning in a world of inequality, prejudice and unfairness. That world is one which Hally can only begin to understand, as he boldly proposes for his homework assignment to write about the dancing competition as an event of historical and cultural significance. The characters’ fond memories are shattered by the news that Hally’s father is returning home from hospital. Even though Sam and Hally share the memories of the man’s drunken embarrassments, shame and blame coincide within the teenager’s psyche, leading to an unexpected lashing out of both anger and bigotry, projected onto the wrong father-figure. Thus, a term of respect adversely alters the lifelong friendship between Sam and Hally in an instant.  

“Master Harold”…and the Boys will make the audience ponder about how much things have really changed in South Africa since 1994, just as Karvellas has asked himself, “at its core, how much work still needs to be done, to unify us as a nation?” One day Athol Fugard’s plays may seem antiquated - but that still seems a long way off. Yes, this may be another production about the injustices of apartheid, and South Africa needs to move forward. Nonetheless, its messages remain painfully relevant today, and the power of the play and the quality of the acting make this production unmissable. 

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