Reviewed by James Karas
“Master Harold”…and the boys is a searing drama about racism in South Africa and it gets a masterly production at the Shaw Festival. It got a standing ovation at the end that was spontaneous and richly deserved.
The plot could hardly be simpler. Willie (Allan Louis) and Sam (André Sills) are black men who work in a tea room in Port Elizabeth. Hally (James Daly) is the son of the owner and looks like a troubled young man.
Willie calls the boss’s son Master Harold and his dream is to win a ballroom dancing contest. He is a decent man who knows his position in the racist society of South Africa in 1950.
André Sills as Sam, James Daly as Hally and Allan Louis as Willie in “Master Harold” …and the Boys.
Photo by David Cooper.
Sam calls his “master” Hally and as the plot develops we realize that he is a friend of the young man and in fact a father figure. Hally’s father is a drunk and an invalid who is hospitalized and Hally harbors a great deal of hatred for him. The guidance and affection that Hally should have received from his father came from Sam.
Between memories of good times, dreams of winning the dance contest by Willie, facing the pressures of his relationship with his father by Sam, the play builds up to an explosive climax that takes your breath away.
Friendship, respect, basic decency and gratitude are all swept away in several lines and a single gesture. Hally demands that Sam start calling him “Master Harold” and tells him that he is inferior to his hated father because he, the father, is a white man. He repeats a disgusting racist joke that is his and his father’s favourite. The gesture will freeze you in your tracks and I don’t want to spoil it for you. You should see the play.
The play lasts ninety minutes and all the action takes place in a tea room with a counter and some tables by Set Designer Peter Hartwell.
Philip Akin directs the three actors with impeccable touches. From simple gestures to facial expressions to vocal intonations, these are highly accomplished performances.
The point of the play, I think, is not that racism, injustice, abuse and repulsive behaviour exist. They are almost run of the mill results of racial attitudes. Fugard illustrates that racism can rob people of their fundamental humanity as it does with Hally.
A great day at the theatre.
And a bonus.
If you want to see a performance that you can use the words “bravura performance” you must see The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God. That is a long title for a 45-minute delight of an adaptation for the stage by Lisa Codrington from a short play by Bernard Shaw.
The cast of The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God. Photo by David Cooper.
Here is a partial list of the people you will meet: The Almighty, The Lord of Hosts, Micah the Morasthite, King Solomon, The Conjurer and some mortals like a Mathematician, the Black Bearer, a Biologist, an Artist, a White Missionary and a Black Mumba Snake. I tried to list the characters in the play in order of descending importance from God to the Snake but I was not sure where to place GBS who also appears. Does he go before or after the Almighty?
What are these.., well we can’t call them “people”…let’s say characters (?) doing in “The Darkest Africa” and the Bible which happen to be the settings of the play? They have to contend with a Black Girl who is in search of God. She has an awful lot of questions about God and the Bible and a few other things. (Why did God take only five days for creation of everything?)
You want to see a bravura performance. Just watch Natasha Mumba as the Black Girl. She has energy, intelligence, a tongue that can outshoot a machine gun and a mesmerizing theatricality.
Seven actors taking from one to several roles have to answer to and try to keep up with Mumba. They are enjoyable to say the least. I will simply list their names: Guy Bannerman, Tara Rosling, Ben Sanders, Kiera Sangster, Andre Sills, Graeme Somerville, Jonathan Tan.
The Adventures starts at 11:30 and will not affect your lunch or the matinee performance that you no doubt came to see. But it will leave you with an unforgettable performance …did I say “bravura”?
And a disappointment.
Staging W.S. Gilbert’s Engaged is surely an intelligent choice. This Gilbert is more famous as the librettist of the Gilbert and Sullivan team of operetta creators but he wrote a lot of plays too.
His 1877 farce is directed by Morris Panych with a cast that should have us guffawing if not rolling in the aisles but it did not work fro me. It is the sort of production where the actors try hard and for some reason most lines misfire.
(l to r) Nicole Underhay as Belinda Treherne, Diana Donnelly as Minnie Symperson and Gray Powell as Cheviot Hill in Engaged. Photo by David Cooper.
A taste of the plot. Cheviot Hill (Gray Powell) is well off and has a bad habit of proposing to every pretty girl that he meets. His friend Belvawney (Jeff Meadows gets £1000 per year from Cheviot’s father to make sure that Cheviot does not get married. If he gets married the annuity will go to Symperson (Shawn Wright) who is pushing his daughter Minnie (Diana Donnelly) to marry Cheviot.
And you should meet those colourful Scottish people, Angus (Martin Happer), Maggie (Julia Course) and Mrs. Macfarlane (Mary Haney), whose specialty is derailing trains for a profit. There is more, much more plot complications but all I can say is that I did not enjoy the production. You can’t win them all.
“Master Harold” …and the boys” by Athol Fugard continues in repertory until September 10, 2016 at the Court House Theatre. Engaged by W.S. Gilbert continues until October 23, 2016 at the Royal George Theatre. The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God by Lisa Codrington from a short story by Bernard Shaw continues until September 11, 2016 at the Court House Theatre, all in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.