Lucian Msamati is the most underrated British actor around. He is amazing and should be in all the things. Or at least more of the things. (Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.)
The thing that Lucian Msamati is currently in is‘Master Harold’...and the boys at the National Theatre. Written, semi-autobiographically, by Athol Fugard Master Harold (as it shall henceforth be known, because brevity/laziness) tells the story of Willie and Sam, black workers in the Port Elizabeth tea room owned by the family of white teenager Hally (Master Harold). Port Elizabeth being in South Africa and the play being set during Apartheid, you can sort of see immediately that this is going to be a play of complex relationships and conflict.
For me, this is its main weakness. There’s an inevitability about the direction this play is going to go that is established as soon as the single white character joins the two black characters on stage. If you know your Apartheid era politics (and I appreciate that not everyone does and that if you don’t then your reaction to the play will probably be different), you are waiting for the initial slightly awkward bonhomie to break down. You are waiting for the violence that is a constant undertone of the piece (really effectively by the way) to break through. You know it’s coming. I hesitate to use the word predictable, but it sort of is.
That’s not to say it’s not impactful though. It is. Fugard’s writing is brilliant, thoughtful and so precise. You only need to look at the careful punctuation and capitalisation of the title to know that this is a well written, artfully constructed thing. Some of the scenes that are explicitly about the use of language in particular are beautifully done, particularly the one where ‘Hally’ becomes ‘Master Harold’. The racist language, attitudes and postures haven’t lost their capacity to shock either, especially used as casually as they are here. The complexity of the relationships and the characters is strongly portrayed too - not just those that involve race, but also those that involve age, gender and family ties. It is an extremely well realised piece of writing, and if it’s subject matter has become so well known as to lessen its impact in some ways, well, that’s hardly Fugard’s fault.
Director Roy Alexander Weise’s sure footed production knows exactly what it’s doing and how much room to breathe to give the actors (Msamati in particular). It’s very well paced, not afraid of lengthy silences, though I did feel it could have benefitted from a ten minute trim. Rajha Shakiry’s set and Paule Constable’s lighting combine to create something really evocative of the period as well as being technically surprising in the very final scene (no spoilers). There’s a lot of ballroom dancing in this play (Willie is rehearsing for a competition, tutored by Sam) and choreographer Shelley Maxwell - with a little help from the legendary Bill Deamer as ‘ballroom consultant’ which is a job I would like to apply for please - has created some great routines. My #LucianMsamati4Strictly2020 campaign starts here.
Speaking of which, as is so often the case with any production he’s in, Msamati is the highlight of proceedings here for me by some considerable distance. He is such a toweringly good actor and on fantastic form. His Sam is so sympathetic (though by no means a saint) with a dignity that gives way to rage so affectingly. This is a(nother) great performance from him. Hammed Animashaun plays Willie as someone who has grown up under a violent system and perpetuates it in his own way (he beats up his girlfriend/dance partner) but who is also afraid of it and afraid of the consequences of pushing against it. He’s a more relatable character than a woman beater really should be. I’m afraid Anson Boon’s Hally is a distinct weak link for me, too over the top in his physicality - though I can see what he’s trying to do I just felt like he was constantly and unnecessarily signposting to what his character was going to do next - with nowhere near the nuance of Msamati and Animashaun and what I will charitably call a patchy South African accent. Msamati and Animashaun have amazing chemistry that makes up for any issues elsewhere, though. And they make for a charming dance partnership.
Though I wasn’t 100% sold on Master Harold, there’s no question that it’s a brilliantly written play. And there’s even less question that Lucian Msamati is brilliant in it. Worth your time, especially if Apartheid South Africa isn’t something you know all that much about - it’s better than any history book I’ve ever read to teach that.
‘Master Harold’...and the boys is in the Lyttelton at the NT until December 17th.
I set in J26 in the stalls for this and paid £35. Great value for probably the best seat I’ve ever had in this theatre.