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Master Harold ... and the boys

Theatre

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Rob Croser’s Independent Theatre is proudly celebrating 30 years of performing quality plays in Adelaide.

One of the strengths of the Independent’s work has been its choice of thought-provoking plays that reflect our multicultural society and it is to be congratulated for supporting minority groups, particularly refugees. Many of its recent productions have explored race relations, so Master Harold … and the boys is an appropriate choice to be part of this year’s celebration.

Athol Fugard is a superb playwright, and performances of Sizwe Bansi is Dead and The Island are indelibly etched in my mind as some of the most powerful and life-changing experiences theatre can offer.  The very detailed and informative program explains that Master Harold is autobiographical.

The play is set in 1950 in a tearoom at the St George’s Park in the South African city of Port Elizabeth, where schoolboy Hally does his homework.  Two black men, Sam and Willie, chat convivially with the white boy as they go about their menial chores in the tea room, which is faithfully and tastefully re-created in David Roach and Rob Croser’s  handsome set, complete with white chairs and tables, curved counter and prominent jukebox upstage.

The play begins a little slowly as the three characters are established and they reminisce about Hally’s childhood, the games they used to play and how, on one significant day, they flew a kite. Although they are friendly and seemingly on good terms, there are enough clever directorial gems that indicate there is a clear hierarchical relationship between the white boy and the black men. Hally and Sam, in particular, seem to learn from each other, but the patronising view of white superiority rears its ugly head; there can be nothing more insulting than a schoolboy referring to a grown man as “boy”.

Hally experiences real inner conflict and his dilemmas are compounded by the usual teenage traumas and uncertainties; he is also embarrassed by his father, who is crippled and an alcoholic.

Benjie Riggs’ performance as the schoolboy is sustained and he transforms successfully from youthful innocence to harsh adulthood. William Mude, as Willie, provides some comedy in his awkwardness and discomfort when he attempts to learn to waltz, and cause for reflection when we learn he has been beating his woman.

Shedrick Yarkpai is outstanding as Sam. He has a sense of being a showman, he radiates charm, is loose and comfortable, and his voice is melodious and dynamic. In a personal tribute to a real man, Fugard has created a character who is wise, understanding and compassionate, and Yarkpai embodies on stage a man of quality who sees how racism harms not only the oppressed but also the actual racist. The discussions between the white boy and the black man are compelling, especially when they discuss the nature of art, entertainment and beauty; there is a sense of hope provided in the metaphor of people dancing and attaining perfection.

Master Harold … and the boys is a quality production and it is to be hoped that when audiences see this masterful Fugard play they will take time to reflect on our own history and our relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens.

Master Harold is playing at the Goodwood Institute until May 31.

 

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