Apartheid. A word that conjures up images of racism and injustice. South Africa, up until 1994, was segregated. Now, in ‘Master Harold’… and the boys, we see the effect of apartheid and its ideology on real homes, with real families.
Athol Fugard, the real-life Master Harold (Anson Boon), wrote this play about an event that occurred in his childhood. One afternoon he leaves school and goes to his mothers tea room, as always, where he is greeted, as always, with warmth and care by the two black men his mother employs, Sam (Lucian Msamati) and Willie (Hammed Animashaun). Sam and Willie like ballroom dancing, and Harold likes philosophising and musing and showing off the things he’s recently learned, as most teenagers do. They reminisce about Hally’s (Sam’s nickname for Master Harold) childhood, flying kites and playing checkers. All seems to be well, until things take an ugly turn.
Roy Alexander Weise’s production is a slow build, until we’re already past the point of no return having barely realised we were getting there. Sam is a father figure to Hally, moreso than his actual father anyway, a veteran amputee and an alcoholic whom Hally wants kept at arm’s length. Young, opinionated, passionate, but as we often are in youth, so very very wrong, Boon as Hally is uncomfortable to watch. He is so clueless, so naïve. Boon’s range knows no bounds as he has Hally sweet as pie one moment, and viciously bigoted the next. Animashaun as Willie is fine, although the ‘jokes’ about him beating his female dance partner make me despise him a little bit. The character itself seems to serve little purpose, but I also can’t imagine the play without him in it, supporting Sam.
Msamati as Sam is undoubtedly the heart of the show, and it is his message that endures. He shows levels of grace, forgiveness and hope that most of us could only ever aspire to, and his disappointment in the boy he sees as a son makes my heart ache. Imagine that your son, hormonal and having just discovered Camus, decides to have a pop at you. Now imagine that you can’t tell him off, because he’s your employer. Now imagine that you’re living in an openly systemically racist society, and he feels he’s free to racially abuse you, should he want to. Noon and Msamati navigate such an unimaginably strained, unique, complicated relationship as best they can, with anger but also with love.
I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for Fugard to write ‘Master Harold’, and how harder still it must have been for the real Sam to live it. Although it can’t reverse the years of hardship – it’s a truly beautiful enduring testament to Sam, and the kind of man he was. He longed for a “world without collisions”, and I think ‘Master Harold’ might contribute, in some small way, to bringing us closer to Sam’s dream.
‘Master Harold’… and the boys played the Lyttleton Theatre until 10 October. For more information, visit the National Theatre website.