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‘It is beautiful. Then it is ugly’: MASTER HAROLD & THE BOYS – National Theatre ★★★★★

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Lyttelton, National Theatre, London –until 17 December 2019

Couldn’t miss this: for two years as a teenager (Dad in the Jo’burg Embassy) I lived alongside the frightened, arrogant paranoia of white South Africa under apartheid. The memory cuts deep. Athol Fugard has long been a voice chronicling with sorrowful understanding that toxic regime, its emotional fallout as well as its injustices.   The title matters: I remember how universal and crushing was the word “boy”, as the most dignified senior black man could be called it by even the trashiest white.

This play is personal: a hundred minutes of real-time in a small eastern-Cape tearoom in 1950, written in tribute to two real men in the young Fugard’s childhood: waiters in the family business, Sam Semela and Willie Malopo. One of the ironies of apartheid always was the playful, happy familiarity of many white children with black servants or minders, in even the most racistly convinced families. But the approach of adult dignities could turn that relationship sour and shaming, as a “Hally” became “Master Harold”. Under director Roy Alexander Weise, the play moves with slow atmospheric pace, building a world before us both onstage and off.

We first see the ‘boys’ – Lucian Msamati as Sam and Hammed Animashaun as Willie, practising and discussing a ballroom dancing competition. Sam is older, dapper and dryly witty in his white coat and bowtie, correcting big gangling Willie’s steps and persuading him that if he wants his girlfriend Hilda to turn up to rehearsals he really must stop knocking her about.

Young Harold stumps in to the family tearoom, fresh from school, shrilly adolescent verging on insufferable, moaning about his homework: Anson Boon catches the Afrikaner accent, grating alongside the deep voices of the men, at first sometimes hard to make out but rising as the hour goes on. Sam picks up books and reads with careful slowness, interested in new words, approving of a history text about Napoleon’s belief in human equality.  Hally tends to patronise him. But the joshing has warmth too, as they argue about Darwin, Caesar, Jesus; the boy even forgetting his white dignity when Sam scores a point.

They start remembering how as a child he would sneak out to the servants’ quarters and hide under Sam’s bed.  Through phone calls from his mother we discover that the father – crippled, and a drunk –  is being brought home from hospital and that Hally dreads the chamberpots, the caring, the spittle, the drinking; yet on the phone to his father he is determinedly affectionate.

The mood rises and falls,  Hally’s anger spilling over sometimes to be vented on the patient Sam,  then abating again as they remember a kite the older man once made him.  In a marvellous evocation of excitement,  the two ‘boys’ explain about the ballroom competition and its grace and dignity.  Don’t couples ever collide? asks the lad and Sam .  “It’s like being in a dream about a world where accidents don’t happen”.

Hally fires up, suddenly animated about an idea – “the way you want life to be…get the steps right, no collisions…the United Nations is – a dancing school for politicians!”     He scribbles notes – “native culture, the war dance replaced by the waltz”  but Sam kindly ignores that crassness.   The two  men dance, demonstrating moves;  Msamanti ,  always an actor of awesome depth of dignity and emotion (remember his Salieri?) is a miracle of physical wit and grace.   Animashaun is a touching, effortful Willie.

It is beautiful. Then it is ugly:  the father’s imminent return makes Hally defensive ,  defiant.  Demanding respect, sneering at the dance,  despising his father.   Not without reason;   but when the properly fatherlike  Sam pulls him up,   suddenly it’s young-master and despised kaffir.  The shock of the k-word  knocks you reeling. And  there’s worse, and as the world of harmony  tilts into filth you can feel the jolt going through the audience.

So it should. Are we given a hint of redemption, of hope?  Yes.  Only just. But it’s enough to bring the house to its feet in mere relief.

www. nationaltheatre.org.uk     to  17 dec

rating  five  .

…Note that the fifth is a dancemouse,  because the choreographer and movement director Shelley Maxwell does a fine, fine job….

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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