Review: ‘Master Harold’…and the boys, National Theatre

‘Master Harold’…and the boys proves nothing less than a modern classic at the National Theatre, not least in Lucian Msamati’s spectacular performance

“Things will change, you wait and see. One day somebody is going to get up and give history a kick up the backside and get it going again”

At a moment where a Tory Home Secretary chillingly grins while declaring an end to ‘freedom of movement’, the idea of reckoning with one’s legacy carries an extra pungency. That any of us might be able to do with even just a hint of Athol Fugard’s self-reflective elegance as in his 1982 play ‘Master Harold’…and the boys, is something to think about whether your last name is Patel, Pietersen or Parker.

Master Harold... is set in 1950, in apartheid-era South Africa, and is situated somewhere in the realm of semi-autobiography. Running in real-time on a rainy afternoon in Port Elizabeth, gangly teenager Hally is hiding out from his parents and hanging with their familiy’s two servants Sam and Willie.  They’ve got their mind on the upcoming ballroom dancing championship but as their young master goes through the emotional wringer, the limits of their friendship become all too brutally apparent.

What sings through Roy Alexander Weise’s perfectly calibrated production here (returning to the NT after the glorious Nine Night) is the innate understanding of how profoundly Fugard’s writing reaches. It is a powerful indictment of the regime under which he lived, sure, but its lessons stretch far beyond the veldt. How racism can lodge itself in the most unassuming of minds because of environment, sure but more crucially, how it festers due to individual shortcomings.

Here, it is a self-loathing rooted in familial dysfunction, and one which has blinded Hally to the realities of who Sam and Willie are to him. As reminiscences of the past tumble out, there’s a shocking lack of appreciation for the difficulties of acting in loco parentis when you can’t even share a bench (that kite story…my heart!). And as he pushes, too far, something massive fractures around them, even if ultimately nothing might actually substantively change. 

There’s much to appreciate here but what radiates above all is another spectacular performance from Lucian Msamati in a theatre that seems to bring the best out of him (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Amadeus…). His Sam is graceful, deeply-felt soul, your eyes just can’t leave him, even with Hammed Animashaun’s comic glow in full force as Willie, and as Anson Boon’s Hally tears away at him. Hugely recommended.

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Helen Murray
‘Master Harold’…and the boys is booking at the National Theatre until 17th December

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