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BWW Reviews: New 'MASTER HAROLD' Production at the Fugard Packs an Emotional Punch

There is always a special kind of buzz when a play by Athol Fugard is presented at the Fugard Theatre, all the more so in this case, because "MASTER HAROLD"... AND THE BOYS is one Fugard's greatest plays, one which manages to distil organically the playwright's political perspectives and intentions into the narrative, characters and language of the piece. This new production, directed by Kim Kerfoot, illuminates the material well, not only in its relevance to South Africa's past, but also in its significance to the country's current situation.

Set in 1950, the play documents the relationship between 17-year-old Hally and two African servants who work in his mother's tea-room in St Georges Park in Port Elizabeth. Having known Sam and Willie all his life, Hally has developed a friendship with the pair - and especially with Sam - that seems to transcend the limitations of the apartheid system that surrounds them. The actual superficiality of that transcendence turns an ordinary afternoon into a life-changing experience for Hally and Sam. One of the central metaphors of the play is that of professional ballroom dancing as a vision of a world without collisions and in the world of this play, as in our own, the collisions are many and devastating.

Initially banned in South Africa, "MASTER HAROLD"... AND THE BOYS had its debut in the United States in 1982. After a run at the Yale Repertory Theatre, the play transferred to Broadway with Lonny Price as Hally, Zakes Mokae as Sam and Danny Glover as Willie, earning Tony Award nominations for Best Play and Best Direction (for Fugard, who directed his own work on stage) and a Tony Award for Mokae as Best Featured Actor in a Play. Two years later, the piece was filmed for television, with Mokae his award-winning role joined by Matthew Broderick as Hally and John Kani as Willie. Later, when the play was revived on Broadway in 2003, Price returned to direct Glover as Sam, with Michael Boatman as Willie and Christopher Denham as Hally, after which he helmed the 2010 film adaptation with Ving Rhames as Sam, Freddie Highmore as Hally and Patrick Mofokeng as Willie.

The film of "MASTER HAROLD"... AND THE BOYS made it seem like Fugard's work was a reminder of the apartheid era, with little to say about the South Africa of today and the political aftermath left behind by a terrible and terribly destructive ideological system. This was saddening, because reading the play itself against the backdrop of contemporary South Africa is a reminder just how long the shadows of apartheid are, in spite of the great strides forward the country has made under the government of a democratic constitution.

Not relying on the play's history is just the thing that makes Kerfoot's direction of the play so very remarkable. By reinvestigating the play and what makes it work, Kerfoot liberates "MASTER HAROLD"... AND THE BOYS from the shackles placed upon it by its reputation and by its past. Whereas Price's film was disappointing because it was more of a tribute to an idea of what the play is about and a valentine to a period in the director's youth that he (rightfully) holds dear, Kerfoot gets to grips with what Fugard is saying about the destructive forces of apartheid, how this was felt on a personal level between the people of South Africa and how the one of the system's most powerful weapons, so to speak, was the insidious way its beliefs were passed from generation to generation.

What Kerfoot also does fantastically is negotiate a compelling emotional journey through Fugard's text. It can be very easy to lose one's way in the density of Fugard's writing, particularly in what could be termed his realist apartheid plays, where Fugard hones in on a fracture in society without forgetting that the society itself has multiple fractures. Kerfoot picks up on those impulses and weaves them into his direction of the actors, bringing to the fore the way that each character's own emotional reality impacts on his relationship with the other two.

The "Master Harold" of the title is played by Alex Middlebrook, a local teenager who is making his professional debut in this production. Middlebrook's performance is a little too mannered at first, but he settles into the role and is game for the more emotional sequences towards the play's climax. He certainlu captures what Fugard describes in one of his stage directions as a little dictator marching around with a ruler, and his handling of the key telephone conversations bring about the climax of the play is magnificent.

As Sam, Tshamano Sebe what gives much of the play its efficacy. His is a marvellously sensitive and layered performance. The tenderness and humanity he highlights in the earlier scenes with both Willie and Hally give way to anger and raw emotion in the play's climax. When Hally eventually strips him of any and all dignity, the man that Sam becomes is frightening and Sebe delivers the goods in a heart-rending performance.

Themba Mchunu pitches his performance as Willie well. The temptation to reduce Willie merely to Sam's comic sidekick is great, but Mchunu delivers a performance that makes Willie humane in spite of his flaws. His story, and that of the unseen Hilda's, is one of the fractures within the fracture; that there is never a moment where this aspect of the play slips into easy comedy is a demonstration to the sensitivity of all involved in transforming this piece of literature into a theatrical performance.

That "MASTER HAROLD..." AND THE BOYS has survived the apartheid era and feels as relevant and moving today as it did then is a testament to the fact that - as stated in the programme - the brilliance of the play owes much to the fact that Fugard deals 'not with political issues, but individuals'. Perhaps that is not quite on the money, for - in his best plays - Fugard deals with political issues through the experiences of the individual. Perhaps it is damning that the play still feels as relevant as it does. If not, it is at least disheartening that we are all still trying to dance without colliding with one another, both in South Africa and in the international arena. Nevertheless, "MASTER HAROLD..." AND THE BOYS offers a powerful emotional experience to the audiences who are making their way to the Fugard Theatre every night. Try to get there before it closes.

Photo credit: Jesse Kate Kramer

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