Review: “MASTER HAROLD”…and the Boys, in Toronto

by Lynn on October 15, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Athol Fugard
Directed by Philip Akin
Set and costumes by Peter Hartwell
Lighting by Kevin Lamotte
Dance sequences by Valerie Moore
Cast: James Daly
Allan Louis
André Sills

An exquisitely directed and acted production of Athol Fugard’s searing play about life in Apartheid South Africa as seen through the eyes of three men.

NOTE: This production was first done at the Shaw Festival in July. It has since moved in tact to Toronto. It is still exquisite. I am reproducing the review here and urge you to see the production.

The Story. The play is set in the St. Georges Park Tea Room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1950. Willie and Sam are two adult employees who take care of the room, serving, washing, doing cash etc. They are black. Hally (Harold is the actual name) is the privileged teenaged son of the white couple who own the tea room and have employed Willie and Sam for years.

Willie is fretting about a ballroom dance competition he wants to win but is saddled with a partner who doesn’t know the steps. He beats her up in frustration. She balks at this bad treatment and threatens to quit. Sam tells him to treat his partner better and he won’t lose her. He’s lost several to his bad behaviour.

Hally arrives to do his homework. Both Willie and Sam have known Hally since he was a young boy. Willie and Sam treat Hally in their own way. Willie is very deferential, even obsequious. He has always called him Master Harold. Sam has always treated the boy with respect and affection but not in a bowing, scraping way. Sam has helped Hally with his school work in his own way; challenging the boy to think about questions of his homework; fielded questions about the readings and about life. Sam made a kite for Hally when he was a boy and taught him how to fly it.

In a way Sam is a surrogate father to Hally. Hally’s own father is an angry, belligerent drunk who is disabled. At present he’s in the hospital but is coming home soon as Hally learns in a phone call with his mother. This throws Hally in a tizzy. He is not looking forward to it. He takes his anger out on Sam. Terrible words are spoken by Hally. Sam, always wise and thoughtful keeps his decorum as best he can. The rift looks almost impossible to fix, try as Sam does to help Hally see the error of his ways. But this is Apartheid South Africa and Hally has a lot to learn. Will it happen in the play or is the hope in Willie and Sam?

The Production. Peter Hartwell has designed a very small tea room of a few tables. A juke box is stage left of a curbed counter. Stage right at the back is the place where the food is prepared and then put on a shelf to be served to the customers. The floor is a black and white checkerboard design.

In preparation for the next day, the tables will be properly set with white table clothes. Every effort is made to make this place seem a place of some class. In reality it’s not. Business is slow. Sam reads a magazine and Willie practices his dance steps.

The energy level rises when Hally (James Daly) breezes in, confident, easy, irreverent and familiar with Sam and Willie. The loose-limbed body language of James Daly as Hally illuminates a young man, a teen who is pampered. While we see a petulant young man in this performance, we also see the sense of entitlement. Daly’s performance never turns us off. We are as disappointed in him as Sam is.

Willie (Allan Louis) tries to be as helpful as possible, jumping right in, almost trying too hard. Willie is a man who almost bows when Hally enters. Allan Louis’s playing of Willie is without guile, sweet, almost sad in his efforts to please. The result is a terrific performance

Sam is also energized when Hally arrives. Sam is confident enough in their relationship that he teases this young man. He challenges him on his homework. We sense that this is their routine. This is how Sam makes Hally take initiative and work. Sam encourages, supports, teases and compliments Hally when he needs it. He understands the challenges of this young man; his unhappy family-life; how he is afraid of his father. How he, Sam, is the father Hally deserves but doesn’t have. As Sam, Andre Sills gives a towering, subtle, nuanced performance. He throws out an idea to Hally and gives a sly look, waiting for the young man to catch the idea and run with it. Andre Sills makes the audience watch him look for a sign from Hally as well. This is a performance of dignity, decency and tremendous generosity.

Hally does something despicable to Sam and Sam reacts accordingly but still with a hurt compassion. He waits, as do we, for Hally to do the right thing. Young as he is Hally represents entitled white South Africa. Doing the right thing for them is years away. Rising above it and doing the right thing for Sam and Willie and for the people they represent is where the hope is in the play.

Philip Akin has realized the ache and hope in the play with his exquisite direction. Each revelation, tease and good-natured joshing unfolds with careful delicacy. There are moments of gut-twisting regret and heart-squeezing compassion thanks to this wonderful collaboration between gifted director and cast.

Comment. The title “Master Harold”…and the Boys is terrifically ironic and slyly offensive. It harkens back to the idea of white supremacy in black South Africa. Even the white boss’s son is called “Master.” And of course that two adult men, who are black, are called ‘boys’ makes one suck air. Playwright Athol Fugard sets up the trick in that title because the play goes so much further than those stereotypical notions.

With just these three characters, writer Athol Fugard has illuminated the various aspects of Apartheid South Africa in 1950. Hally is the entitled, arrogant white master. Willie is the obsequious black man trying to curry favour of anyone he thinks is superior to him and not offend him. Sam is a man who is confident in himself. He is courtly; good-humoured, respectful of his employers but not obsequious. His main role is to be a model, a guide, a surrogate father to Hally; to help him find his way and do his best. He is aware of the shifting world in which he lives, but he is so able that he can adapt.

Because Hally is really an immature young man with misplaced anger—it is really aimed at his bullying father—he zeros in on Sam and treats him disgracefully. Sam rises above it; tries to make Hally see the error of his ways and to bring them both to a place to try again to understand each other. That Hally does not take the opportunity could make one feel that the situation is hopeless. But the real hope in Fugard’s wonderful, moving play and Philip Akin’s exquisitely sensitive production of it is that the hope for South Africa is really with Sam and Willie. They are the ones who will move forward and change the world they live in. That Willie tells Sam he won’t beat up his partner again is a huge declaration. That they both support and encourage each other and understand each other’s pain is hope in neon.

The production is a gift. Please see it.

Produced by Obsidian Theatre Company and the Shaw Festival

Opened: Oct. 12, 2016
Closes: Oct. 23, 2016.
Cast: 3 men
Running Time: 90 minutes.

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