Master Harold … And The Boys: review

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Writer: Athol Fugard

Director: Greg Karvellas

Lighting and set design: Wolf Britz

Cast:  Desmond Dube (Sam), Kai Luke Brummer (Hally) and Siya Mayola (Willie)

Venue and dates: The Fugard Studio Theatre from February 4 to March 21, 2020
Tickets: R180-R250

Book: The Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554 or at

In The Fugard Theatre’s inventive 2020 staging of Master Harold … And The Boys, director Greg Karvellas and designer (set and lighting) Wolf Britz have stripped back the space. We are presented with an unadorned brown tea room with parquet floor and no walls. The sombre liminality heightens the strain between three men who are bound together in a knot of pain and shame. However, within the utterly heart breaking scenes that unfold in a battered tea room, there is the possibility of hope; redemption and transcendence.

Desmond Dube, Kai Luke Brummer and Siya Mayola deliver intensely nuanced performances, wrestling with the complicated triangulated relationship between two waiters, Sam (Dube) Willie (Mayola) and Hally (Harold), a 17-year old schoolboy.

The setting – a tea room in 1950, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

The drama is set on a rainy afternoon in a tea room in Port Elizabeth, 1950. Hally’s mother owns the tea room. Sam is tutoring Willie routines for a ballroom competition that he [Willie] wants to compete in, along with his partner. Hally is doing his homework.  The school boy is anxious because his father – a bigoted disabled drunk is coming home from hospital. We don’t see Hally’s mother but she is very much a presence in the play as is Hally’s father and Doris who is a punching bag for Willy’s rage.

Autobiographical elements of Athol Fugard’s life

The play contains autobiographical elements of Athol Fugard’s life. His mother ran a tea room in PE. It was in a park, next to a swimming pool. Fugard’s birth name was Harold so this play is very personal and with all his plays- the personal is political –always. The play was first staged 1982 in the USA- the first of Fugard’s plays to premiere out of South Africa. Zakes Mokae won a Tony award in the role as Sam. The play was ‘banned’ for staging in South Africa but that was subsequently lifted.

Stripping back Master Harold … And The Boys

For me, in the 2020 production at the Fugard Theatre, Britz’ set and lighting is almost like another character. In previous professional productions that I have seen, the tea room floor was graphically demarcated by a striking black and white pattern of squares. It conjured up a sense of a zush vintage ice cream parlour, which one might encounter in Sea Point. The set evoked for me a sense of nostalgia. In the productions that I saw, Sam and Willy wore smart waiter outfits tuxedos, with bowties. The design softened the thrust of Fugard’s narrative which is a scathing indictment of South Africa in 1950.

It is a play which is spitting with rage, frustration and the fun and funky sets blunted the verbal blows that are intrinsic to this play which resonates with damage and defilement. The young man Hally sullies the love and loyalty of these two men through his words and actions. They are surrogate fathers who have provided companionship, guidance and friendship since he was a small boy. They have been there, watching over him; nurturing; protecting and playing with him. Sam helps him with his homework although Hally disparagingly frames that as educating Sam but in fact is Sam who has educated Hally. There is a camaraderie of sorts but the bottom line is that this is a master-servant relationship and he is Master Hally who sits while ‘The Boys’ sweep up the filth around him and clean up his world – helping to get his drunk father home from the pub. He is the ‘man’ and they are the ‘boys’.

The entire cast is superb. Veteran actor Desmond Dube is magnificent as Sam, imbued with a Madiba-like positivism. He is the eternal humanist, urging Hally to make different choices. Although he despairs, he keeps going because he must have hope. Dube’s interaction with the younger waiter Willy is beguiling as he demonstrates ballroom dance moves and mentors him in conducting relationships.

Ballroom is a happy place of beauty for Sam and that comes across profoundly as he glides around the tea room with Willy – circling around Hally who is plonked at a table, doing his homework. He is almost oblivious to this parallel world of possibility and beauty and bliss of ballroom that Sam and Willy inhabit – away from the drudgery of working at the tea room.

Kai Luke Brummer brings his extensive experiences to Hally – a role that I have seen played by child actors. Hally is a difficult character to play. We recoil from every word he says.  Brummer lobs each line as verbal sling – with utter glee because he is the Master. There are flickers of love for these two men who are his protectors but it is fleeting as he struts in that tea room – clearly the Master – in the absence of his mother and alcoholic damaged father.

Siya Mayola’s Willy is tenderly tempered between subservience – always calling Hally – ‘Master Harold’ –and dominance in the world away from the tea room in how he punishes his woman.

With the set and lighting of Wolf Britz, we don’t have the veneer of a graphic black and white as a buffer to what unravels in front of us. Hally says things which make us cringe. In the previous productions that I saw, I had a sense that this was looking back at how we were.  This is 1950. Grahamstown is referred to as Grahamstown and not Makhanda. It is providing a window into Apartheid SA but the production design pings very much in a contemporary sense in post-democratic SA where the construct of the master-servant relationships remains very much a reality.

This production kicks off The Fugard Theatre’s 10th anniversary season of plays. It is a fitting tribute to Athol Fugard (now 87 – February 2020) and to his body of work in which he has reflected and continues to reflect and engage with our landscape. It is wonderful to see the Fugard Theatre bringing different readings to classic Fugard plays like Master Harold and make them part of an ongoing  conversation of how we view ourselves in relation to our Apartheid roots.

Insights from designer Wolf Britz on designing Master Harold … And The Boys

Britz has been nominated for two 2020 Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards – Set and Design for Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest in which he worked with space, rather than set as object. In Master Harold, he conjures up a word that feels real. In an interview he told TheCapeRobyn that he had looked at archival material of the ‘real’ floor of the tea room that was run by Fugard’s mom]. Regarding the floor used in the production Britz says: “It has a very unique texture. It is very organic. It is almost like different skin tones of people. I wanted the characters to feel that they are ‘of that space’. This space is an extension of themselves. I didn’t want to just push it into a very clichéd binary- like black and white [interior]. I think that of we are asking questions about gender identity; how fluid masculinity and felinity is perceived; not just in the strict binaries: When you do a play about what it means ‘to be a man’, you kind of have to raise those questions of fluidity for your contemporary audience.”

Britz was very cognisant of the masculinity of the piece

Britz: “Hally’s mother is absent. She phones but she isn’t there…What does it mean to be a man- an example of a man, role model; in the zeitgeist where we are-sensitive and hyper aware of the responsibilities that we face; being part of a team of story tellers? How you should honour your source material. If we impose certain imagery, we might just alienate peoples’ experiences. So all the choices were made to give access to the audience – to access this piece and to access something which is very far removed from us. How many people do we know that still remember the 1950s? We are conscious of our current context-more than of the time that has passed.”

Configuring the ‘real’ in a theatre space

Britz: “The concept of the ‘real’ is something that I want to talk about. The play is autobiographical and by nature it is set in a very real space. This real space is Athol Fugard’s reference to a tea room [his mother’s tea room].  It is a real space in Port Elizabeth. It has a real geometry – if you can say that ‘real’ is something that you can measure. So that informed the process to anchor this [the production] in a very real place- in which the narrative can be played out- from this ‘real’ space. Because discrimination and prejudice  and bias: Peoples’ experience of that is very real, so it was important not to aestheticise hate speech or to aestheticise discrimination: Desmond Dube is being spat in the face, every single night. It is very real. The theatre space is a very real space, so to highlight that – those issues – we didn’t have to speculate about the dimensions of this tea room in St Georges Park. 

The park being almost the exoctic-fication of Africa – like this tamed Africa- this very lush garden and swimming pool. So, it was very important not to exotic-fy Africa –not to glamourize or dress it up or impose a very Western ideal or construct.

Between Greg [Karvellas] and myself, it was more about this continued conversation we had in Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act: It is a strip-down version so that we elevate whatever is the action in the play. So it [set] kind of recedes. It doesn’t need the signifiers like a coke a cola sign: All those signifiers that would suggest that this is a really ‘real’ space. It is stripped of that completely.”

Image credit: Kai Luke Brummer, Siya Mayola and Desmond Dube. Photo: Claude Barnardo.

Master Harold … And The Boys, The Fugard Studio, 2020 – production credits:

Producer – Eric Abraham
Producer – Daniel Galloway; co-producer – Lamees Albertus
Associate Producer – Georgia Lahusen
Playwright – Athol Fugard
Director – Greg Karvellas

Set and lighting design – Wolf Britz
Costume design, wardrobe supervisor  – Widaad Albertus
Ballroom dance consultant – Grant van Ster

Theatre/travel advisory

The Fugard Theatre address: Corner Caledon and Lower Buitenkant Street, District Six, Cape Town, 8001

Wheelchair access: The theatre is up a flight of stairs. Call ahead for assistance.

Book online or by calling: 021 4614554