Among many plays built on the “rite of passage” theme, Athol Fugard’s "Master Harold"… and the Boys stands out for its dramatic intensity, generated by an ever-shifting dynamic in the protagonists’ relationships. It combines shrewd political comment with profound humanity, making even the volatile adolescent Harold worthy of sympathy at his most obnoxious, and eschewing any facile glorification of the long-suffering servants who attend him. While the respect inspired by the natural dignity of Sam, the elder black employee, is considerable, it is not a mere function of negative comparison with the brattish petulance of white “Hally”. Fugard’s psychology probes deeper…
Another strength of Fugard is to perceive the extraordinary in ordinary circumstances, and here we have the perfect illustration: on a dull, wet day a boy returns from school to tackle homework after having a light lunch served by his mother’s staff in her unglamorous tea room – as he does every day during term. The two black servants have been engaged in dance-practice ahead of a ball room competition, a glimmer of excitement in their monotonous routine. What could be more banal? Yet this is the day on which a relationship built up over several years between the boy and the men is to founder when other factors intrude, their significance becoming more apparent as the off-stage drama unfolds. Pure theatre.
In addition to this potent vis dramatica there is an element of poetry in two recurrent images: a kite which Sam had made for the child Hally some years back, symbolising freedom from restraints, and proficient ballroom dancing, in which no collisions mar the beauty and harmony of the spectacle. Together they evoke a sort of Utopia where one can find peace and happiness. In brutal contrast is the reality of Master Harold’s absent sire – a vulgar, alcohol-sodden racist with an unedifying track record as husband and father.
Several collisions later, breaking point is reached, with devastating consequences not entirely neutralised by an olive branch in the play’s closing moments. In the course of one afternoon Hally, Sam and Willie have flickered in and out of what was once a warm and mutually rewarding relationship to find the bleakness underlying that friendly veneer.
Of the three actors entrusted with delivering this superlative piece, Desmond Dube is remarkable for the insight, focus and nuance he brings to the role of Sam. Siya Mayola, as Willie, offers a muted but intelligent foil to Dube’s bravura performance, and Kai Luke Brummer convinces as the moody, flawed and unhappy teenager, though neither attains the stature of their fellow thespian. In a three-hander as taut as this, it is best to avoid upstaging. That said, the trio respond sensitively to Karvellas’ direction, making this a memorable production.
"Master Harold"… and the Boys
Director: Greg Karvellas
Cast: Desmond Dube, Kai Luke Brummer and Siya Mayola
Venue: Fugard Studio, until March 21