Review: “‘Master Harold’…and the Boys” a timely and powerful apartheid-era piece at the Segal

Dora Award-winning Shaw Festival production at last premieres in Montreal

André Sills, James Daly, and Allan Louis in “‘Master Harold’…and the Boys” (Photo: David Cooper)

The Segal Centre for Performing Arts continues its 10-year anniversary celebration and heads into the second half of its 2017-2018 artistic season with an acclaimed and multi award-winning piece that is as presently urgent as it is historically significant.

In association with Black Theatre Workshop, the Segal Centre here brings to its main stage Obsidian Theatre’s Shaw Festival production of Athol Fugard’s 1982 self-acknowledged, semi-autobiographical drama, ‘Master Harold’…and the Boys – a play that was initially banned in the Tony-winning playwright’s native South Africa and that has since become an enduring, modern classic that continues to speak to racial inequality and injustice.

James Daly as “Master Harold” Hally and André Sills as Sam (Photo: David Cooper)

Written by Fugard and directed by Philip Akin in the purest realistic tradition, “Master Harold” transports us to 1950 – the infancy of the apartheid when South Africa’s system of racial segregation was still being set up. Set in a windy, rainy afternoon in a tea parlour in the provincial town of Port Elizabeth, the story fixates and zeroes in on the deceptively complex relationship between Hally (James Daly), the seventeen-year-old son of the shop’s owners, and Sam (André Sills) and Willie (Allan Louis), the two black middle-aged employees who have cared for the young Afrikaner for his entire life.

There is obvious affection and camaraderie among the three, with the older Sam, in particular, serving as both as the unacknowledged yet de facto mentor and surrogate father figure to Hally, who is revealed to have a deeply troubled relationship with his own brutal and disabled alcoholic parent.

Nevertheless, Hally is their superior, “Master Harold”, and Sam and Willie are the “boys” in the compelling “Master Harold” … and the Boys, whose meaningful punctuation further underscores the perversity of racism under the apartheid.

As the workmen clean and close business for the day (Peter Hartwell is credited for the exquisitely detailed set) and Willie – an avid pupil with an astute, inquiring mind and a zealous interest in social reform – sits at the family shop to finalize his school essay, they fondly reminisce about times spent together. Poetic metaphors and imagery of makeshift kites and ballroom quicksteps overlay playful banter, discussions on religion, and musings on what and who comprises “a man of magnitude” – Darwin, Lincoln, and Tolstoy among their prime candidates.

An incoming phone call with news of the imminent return of Hally’s father after a hospital stay, however, puts Hally on edge. He becomes increasingly belligerent, viciously unleashing on his two friends years of anger, pain resentment, and vicarious racism from his tyrannical father. Their relationship, for all its openness, is horribly shredded, and the play’s explosive final minutes ring and register deep.

André Sills, Allan Louis and James Daly (Photo: David Cooper)

The impact of the action and the delicately wrought portrayals by the accomplished ensemble of actors is one of astonishment. André Sills invests Sam with a quiet dignity, compassion, patience, and moral intelligence that makes his violent humiliation at Hally’s hands all the more shattering. Allan Louis, in his turn, is entirely genuine, generous, subtle, and warmly engaging as the well-meaning waiter Willie. Rounding the outstanding cast, James Daly superbly conveys Hally’s mixture of immaturity, entitlement, vulnerability, and ultimate guilt as he comes to realize the consequences of his destructive words.

“Master Harold”…and the Boys may be of a distant epoch and locale, but its tearing, truthful depiction of the ways humans are capable of hurting even those they love the most transcends the political landscape of oppression and bigotry that inspired it. At an age when institutionalized racism and its deep roots are once again a prominent and pressing subject of international debate, Fugard’s gripping text feels particularly, and sorrowfully, all the more pertinent. With a grounded simplicity that builds up to one of the most powerful moments we’ve been privileged to witness in live theatre, “Master Harold” is among the most potent offerings this season in Montreal. Story and script over spectacle make this classic yet timely production a harrowing, captivating, and searing success at the Segal.

The Segal Centre, in association with Black Theatre Workshop,
presents the Shaw Festival Production in association with Obsidian Theatre


When: January 21st to February 11th, 2018
Where: 5170 Chemin de la Côte-Sainte-Catherine, Montreal, QC H3W 1M7
Duration: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Admission: CAD $24.50-$61.00
Box Office: | 514.739.7944

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