Master Harold ... and the boys

Sat 6th – Tue 9th August 2011


Rebecca Tatlow

at 08:41 on 8th Aug 2011



A play about the pressures which apartheid placed upon relationships during the 1950s was unlikely to be a barrel of laughs. However, 'Master Harold ... and the Boy's manages to tackle such matters with a mixture of hopeful speeches and slapstick humour, looking forward to reconciliation rather than lamenting the past.

The titular characters reminisce on a rainy afternoon in the cafe owned by Harold's mother and staffed by the two black waiters Sam and Willie. When he was much younger, Harold started to teach Sam each day whatever he'd learnt at school and, in return, Sam grew to be a substitute for Harold's drunkard and often absent father. The two are still close but now, aged seventeen, Harold wants to be a man who commands respect and he finds himself drifting violently away from the comfort and support his friends can provide.

The young actor Ernie Koela, who played Sam, was fantastic. Completely convincing he charmed the audience from the start and carefully questioned stereotypes in his portrayal. Next to him the character of Willie (Kabelo Gcabashe) sometimes seemed close to caricature but this was supported by the script and the two actors provided a solid double act with high energy throughout. Less relaxed, Ty Wills performed well the difficult and often unappealing part of Harold. A little more stillness at some points could have aided the emotional journey of the piece and created a greater contrast between the characters' shared memories and their current state of affairs. The climax of the play was handled with great maturity.

The script's raw presentation of how children were affected by the denigration of 'native' culture is particularly highlighted by the show. Harold's cynicism and refusal to enjoy the 'simple' pleasures in life are contrasted with the joy ballroom dancing gives the waiters. Moreover the patience with which they endure his instinctive and patronising remarks is a moving example of human kindness. As Harold searches for examples of 'Men of Magnitude' such greats as Tolstoy and Darwin are mentioned yet it is the everyday acts of endurance which shine out and provide the hope of a better reconciliation in future, the hope of a 'world without collisions'.

The commitment of the cast and Koela's central performance bring to life this play about community. Using characterisation as a call for social reform, 'Master Harold ... and the Boys' has some memorable moments as it attempts to unite entertainment and art, black and white.


Imogen Sarre

at 10:12 on 8th Aug 2011



Plays about the struggle for black equality (so rampant in the American 60s) don’t really get put on anymore. It’s seen as passé, a battle already won: other social inequalities are at the forefront of our PC lenses. This South African college’s decision to put on a play about apartheid difficulties and generational changes could have been (for UK members at least) quite refreshingly different and illuminating. Instead, although this production showed hints of the insightful, it really didn’t say anything new. Portraying the friendship between a black servant, Sam (Ernie Koela) and his young white master, Helly (Ty Wills), the pair’s familiar friendship was darkened by the underlying awareness of a fixed hierarchy of power.

Played by Kabelo Gcabashe, Willie’s flamoboyantly poor dancing skills and Sam’s hip-swaying easy moves set the piece off at a fine pace, creating comedy and a good atmosphere from the start as the audience witnessed a cast revelling in the fun of a bit of quickstep. As Sam, Koela’s powerful and easy presence dominated the stage from the start, enthralling his audience by some sassy shimmies and a good sense of comic timing. Characterisation was also strong from Helly (Wills): as soon as he arrived, he succeeded in enacting the assurance of his own authority while simultaneously conveying a sense of his youthfulness – no easy balance to achieve. His own self-regard was nicely evident, matched by the offhand and dismissive tones he employed with both Sam and Willie. It was a shame that, at times, his energy seemed slightly forced and his movement around the stage could be both excessive and seem self-conscious. Willie’s performance was charming but too heavy handed, his face registering reactions like he was enacting a slideshow of stereotyped emotions.

The play’s primary problem was that, with our hyper-sensitive awareness of anything not quite politically correct, the cast’s frequently ostentatious displays of prejudice and oppression seemed unnecessary, marring the subtlety and interesting nature of the relationships drawn. This is a play that was first performed in 1982: what may have seemed subtly radical then now seems blatant, so the script should have been handled with a touch more sensitivity and nuance. There was simply no need for Helly to drop absolutely everything he used on the floor, leaving Sam to pick it up after him, nor for the cleaning Willie to hold up to the audience every disgusting item he found – we had already got that he was being subjugated. This sometimes crude treatment of issues undermined the overall quality of the production and detracted from the consummate ease with which the actors had created a basic sense of the men’s relationships to one another.

As the play developed and Sam and Helly’s relationship disintegrated, Koela (Sam) chose to present himself as broken and disappointed. I personally found it frustrating that he didn’t show more signs of anger at Helly’s despicable treatment of him, but it was a valid approach to take until the script asked him to throw himself at Helly in a fury. Having not built up to this overt display of emotions, this felt forced and seemed a random interlude to be forgotten as quickly as it had arrived. The play’s subject matter clearly demanded an emotional response from the audience, yet, when it came, I felt no deep sadness that Sam had fallen from grace. Although Sam explicitly suggests that their happy friendship had been irrevocably lost, there was no real sense that it had – Sam’s gentle dealings with Helly conveyed that, should Helly want it to, the relationship could return to its former self. There needed to be more repressed bitterness to make the themes of loss and betrayal more poignant: I should have left with a sour taste in my mouth and a reinvigorated hatred of the waste and distance that such prejudice enforces. Instead, this enjoyable production would be easy to promptly forget about.


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