“Master Harold” … and the Boys at the National Theatre
Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold” … and the Boys premiered in the USA in 1982. But in the National Theatre’s new revival, the story feels as achingly relevant to the 21st-century West as it was to 1980s South Africa. Highly autobiographical, the play covers one day in the lives of Sam (Lucian Msamati) and Willie (Hammed Animashaun), black “boys” working in a tearoom. “Master Harold” (Anson Boon) is their employer’s son, a white teenager known (like Fugard himself) as Hally. Affection and a kind of paternalism turn during the afternoon into shame and disgust, as the tensions all three carry from their positions in society come to bear on their previously peaceful relationship. The climax, when it comes, serves both as an abrasive comment on the injustices of apartheid-era society and as a moment of personal heartbreak.
The three cast members have exceptional chemistry together, aided by dynamic direction from Roy Alexander Weise. Animashaun (fresh from a star-making turn in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge), endears as the younger of the two “boys”, gracefully carrying his long periods of silence and offering a humour that was lapped up by the agitated audience. Boon handles the challenging role of Hally well, combining the boy’s almost repellent selfishness and ignorance with a moving unhappiness to leave viewers conflicted. But the production is made great by Msamati. His Sam moves about the stage with a magnificent quietude, condemning or condoling with a single expressive look. Msamati’s lightness of touch is grounded by emotions sensed rather than shown. It is a performance of real greatness.
The play is set against an upcoming ballroom dance competition, and it opens and closes with Sam and Willie trying out dance steps on the lino floor of the tearoom – a set beautifully designed by Rajha Shakiry. Fugard makes dance stand in for so many other aspects of human affairs. Relationships of trust, power, family and dependency are compassionately but unstintingly placed in the spotlight; Hally’s adolescence becomes charged with a loss of innocence that can either make or break him as a man. Shelley Maxwell’s choreography turns the characters’ idealism into a touching reality – the men whirl effortlessly, imagining “a world without collisions”.
In his programme notes, Fugard writes of the play: “It is probably the most intensely personal thing I have ever written.” Weise’s production achieves the near-impossible: it makes this story set 60 years ago and 9000 miles away feel intensely personal to every audience member too. Drawing audible gasps and a standing ovation, it stood as evidence that racial prejudice and hatred are anything but dead in the UK today. “Master Harold”’… and the Boys is a tense, utterly powerful production. If you only see one play this season, see this.
Photos: Helen Murray
“Master Harold” … and the Boys is at the National Theatre from 1st October until 17th December 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.