At first glance, ‘Master Harold’…and the Boys seems like another generic tale about the brutality of the Apartheid years in South Africa. But, scratch the surface and there is intrigue underneath. Its author Athol Fugard was born Harold Athol Lanigard Fugard on 11 June 1932, in Middleburg, South Africa. His father, of Irish, English and French Huguenot descent, was a cripple and a drunk. His mother, an Afrikaner, ran a failing tea room in Port Elizabeth, where she employed two Black men – Sam Semela and Willie Malopo – as staff. Sam and Willie were ballroom fanatics. Swept up on the wave of glamorous performing arts brought to the Cape by British and African-American sailors, they stole some of the many quiet moments at work to practice the steps to their favourite dances: the quickstep, the foxtrot, the waltz.
This backstory is the heart of ‘Master Harold’…and the Boys, because Athol Fugard is Master Harold. He lived a life defined by the Aparthied years and learned his racism from young. He was still a boy when he knew that his whiteness was the most valuable currency at his disposal; that he could command respect of which he was not worthy; that he could spit in the face of a Black man and face no consequences. Anson Boon is excellently cast for the role; classically handsome with blue eyes, floppy hair, and an enviable bone structure. Tall, too. When he speaks and reveals himself to be of such repugnant character is when this casting is most effective; halo complex dictates we should forgive him, but this kid really is the worst. Roy Alexander Weise’s direction is compelling throughout the piece, but especially here – he leaves no space for redemption, no space for an iota of empathy to creep in. Neither Athol Fugard nor Master Harold deserve it.
Weise’s direction is fortified by Fugard’s script. He wrote not to seek praise and adulation as some sort of reformed racist, but instead to expose the senseless and wicked ugliness of racist oppression. He wrote to highlight the struggle for existence faced specifically by Sam and Willie – and also by other people like them, and how he personally contributed to it. He writes it in the stark contrast between the characters on either side of the fence. Next to Master Harold’s hysterical shrieks of entitlement, outbursts of aggression and proclamations of primitive Black society, his sometime companions are men of magnitude. Lucian Msamati’s Sam is elegant in his crisp white suit jacket and perfectly polished shoes. He looks like wisdom, speaks in measured tones and sees the world from behind the gentlest facial expressions. Even in thunderous anger, Msamati finds a graceful poise for his Sam. Hammed Animashaun’s Willie has not yet developed the same levels of elegance and wisdom as his companion, but we know from the faint sweat patch on the back of his white shirt that he’s hardworking, and there’s an irresistible charm to his bumbliness. Animashaun is well known as a masterful comedic actor, which he works into his performance as Willie at a gentler pace than has previously been seen from him – it’s perfect for this role.
Rajha Shakiry’s design is magnificent. This is the latest in a string of flawless offerings this year – most recently at Royal Court Theatre for seven methods of killing kylie jenner. But it’s in these realistic, situation based pieces that her work inspires awe on some next level. Here, she transports us to that lousy day in that little cafe in 1950s Port Elizabeth with a phenomenal level of detail, from the rain that relentlessly falls on the roof, to the faded Rita Hayworth mural and dusty looking produce that lines the shelves and sits in the aged glass counter.
And then there’s the dancing. In Shelley Maxwell’s movement direction and choreography, Animashaun’s statuesque height and Msamati’s broad shoulders appear weightless. They glide around the floor with all the grace of a pair of feathers looking for a place to land, floating about the chairs and tables that fill the space. It’s a beautifully realised sequence that takes on a higher meaning within the context of the play. It’s because it’s set against the constant colliding of the characters into each other. Sam into Willie, Sam and Willie into Harold, Harold into his mother, Harold’s mother into Harold’s father. And in their wider world; the West into the East, rich people into poor people, white people into Black people. But for those three minutes while the crackly sounds of ‘Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day’ play from the old jukebox in the corner, Sam and Willie live in a world without collisions.
Master Harold and the Boys is on at National Theatre until 17th December 2019. More info and tickets here.