REVIEW: “Master Harold”…and the Boys, National Theatre London ✭✭✭✭

Mark Ludmon reviews Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold”… and the Boys at the National Theatre, London.

Master Harold and the Boys review
Photo: Helen Murray

“Master Harold”… and the Boys
Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London
Four stars
Book Tickets

Athol Fugard has described “Master Harold”… and the Boys as his most personal play, serving to confess guilt over an incident in his childhood. Its devastating portrait of oppression and white entitlement in South Africa during Apartheid is drawn directly from experience, even down to one of the characters being named Hally which was Fugard’s nickname. In Roy Alexander Weise’s meticulous revival, the unjust power systems within a broken white-dominated society are cleverly exposed, with a bleakness tempered by potential for hope.

Running in real time in one act over 95 minutes, the play is a slow build. It takes place in a tearoom in Port Elizabeth in South Africa in 1950, reproduced in wonderful detail by designer Rajha Shakiry with lighting by Paule Constable. It is daytime but outside it is raining and dark, with a continual downpour on the large skylight window above. Its two black waiters, Sam and the younger Willie, are tidying up while talking in good humour about the upcoming ballroom competition that Willie is taking part in. Their conversation is disrupted by the arrival of Hally, the while teenage son of their boss who needs a place to do his homework and have lunch while waiting for his parents.

National Theatre London
Photo: Helen Murray

At first, it is touching as we see Sam’s fatherly love for the boy he has been a friend to throughout his childhood. Hally is brattish and inconsiderate but his teenage indiscretions can initially be overlooked in the ease and enthusiasm with which he chats to Sam and Willie. However, we glimpse the harsh reality of their relationship as the white boy repeatedly asserts his social superiority over these two black men regardless of their kindness and dignity. Hally’s annoying, self-obsessed babbling dominates much of the play but the real power of the piece is its shocking climax that drew gasps from the (mostly white) audience.

Athol Fugard
Photo: Helen Murray

First performed in 1982 before the end of Apartheid in the early 1990s, “Master Harold”… and the Boys is understandably bleak in its portrait of a racist society ruled by a white minority. However, Willie and Sam’s talk of ballroom dancing – popular in South Africa in the 1950s – offers a symbolic vision of an idealised alternative where, as in a dance competition, there is “a world without collisions”. Under movement director Shelley Maxwell, their dignified dancing offers a temporary antidote to the unfair treatment they are forced to endure.

The revival is lifted by two brilliant performances by Lucian Msamati and Hammed Animashaun as Sam and Willie. The pair are charming and likeable, despite Willie’s immature misogynism, and their friendship – again like a father and son – is warm and touching. Anson Boon embraces the obnoxiousness of Hally, an often irritating interloper into the more interesting lives of the two men, silencing their stories in favour of his own. Despite the end for Apartheid, “Master Harold”… and the Boys is an unsparing examination of the systemic racism and social injustice that still feels too familiar.

Running to 17 December 2019

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