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Theatre Review Mordant memoir

MAYER WAKEFIELD sees a brilliant production of an autobiographical play set in the early years of apartheid

‘Master Harold’ ... and the boys
National Theatre, London

IN HIS programme notes, Harold Athol Lanigan Fugard describes his 1982 play ‘Master Harold’ … and the boys as “probably the most intensely personal thing I have ever written.”

It’s so personal that he did not even change the names of the characters from that of his own — Hally, the pet name of a young Fugard — or the “two beautiful men” he describes as having ushered him from boyhood to manhood, Sam Semala (Lucian Msamati) and Willie Malopo (Hammed Animashaun).

Sam and Willie were the waiters in the Port Elizabeth tearoom owned by Fugard’s mother, which is beautifully brought to life on the Lyttleton stage by Rajha Shakiry’s delicately detailed design.

No less delicate is Fugard’s gracefully fluctuating text, which rises and falls like the ballroom dancing steps that Sam is trying to teach Willie in anticipation of the 1950 Eastern Province championships, disrupting the uppity Hally from his homework in the process.

There is a truly wonderful scene in which the two elder men describe the championships in all their joy and vividly bring the majesty of the occasion to life as Hally is temporarily sucked into a world he does not understand. It is crammed with hopes and dreams but underscored by the brutality of segregation.

Although the laws of apartheid have only been in place for two years, a system of white privilege and segregation has far deeper roots. “Safe inside your fair skin,” as his surrogate father Sam describes him, and with his alcoholic father ailing in hospital, Hally combines his furious intellect with a deep adolescent frustration.

When his rage boils over he resorts to the lowest form of abuse to temper his anger. It is a truly shocking moment that climaxes a heart-churning play.

A brilliantly acting triumvirate each deliver astounding performances, particularly the sprightly Lucian Msmati who never puts a foot wrong, physically and metaphorically.

Following on from last autumn’s hit Nine Night, director Roy Alexander Wiese delivers a masterful production of a remarkable play.

Runs until December 17, box office: nationaltheatre.org.uk

 

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