Athol Fugard’s 1982 play is based closely on his own life as a boy in Apartheid-era South Africa. As in the play, Fugard’s first name is actually Harold, his family had two servants called Sam and Willie, his mother had a tearoom and his dad had an injured leg.
Harold (Anson Boon) – known as Hally – has just got back from school, and he chats and jokes with Willie (Hammed Animashaun) and Sam (Lucian Msamati) on Rajha Shakiry’s detailed, drab tearoom set.
The play serves as an act of atonement for something unforgiveable the playwright did to Sam. Fugard builds the dynamics slowly. The seeds are sown with care. To start with, this doesn’t make for a thrilling, dramatic experience.
But director Roy Alexander Weise – and Fugard – are saving their skill for the climax. Fugard’s mastery of structure becomes very clear, as does the reason behind Weise’s decision to sit back and let the words do the work.
Certain lines chill the auditorium. Lines about beating wives. Or long scenes of Hally chatting and joking with “the boys”, until he suddenly snaps and assumes the role of the master. Those stabs and the silences they provoke become more frequent; the dynamics that Fugard has set up twist and shift and writhe.
Boon plays Hally slightly younger than usual, more squeaky-voiced and petulant, but that adds to the horror when he suddenly becomes ‘Master Harold’ rather than just Hally.
As Willie, Animashaun fills the stage when he needs to, but the real power is in his silences. While Sam and Hally chat, Animashaun softens into the background, dutifully and uncomplainingly getting on with his cleaning tasks. It’s only when he almost lets rip, squaring up to Hally towards the end, that we see how much it’s been costing him to hold back.
Msamati’s performance as Sam is perfect. In the play’s build up, it’s like a dance. Sam’s love of ballroom has infected the way Msamati moves around the tearoom, gliding from table to table, and even when the play intensifies, his movement maintains its purpose and poise, which makes the infinitesimal moments when it falls away all the more potent. The way he plays restraint is remarkable, and the way he loses it devastating.
Throughout the play, Sam and Willie look forward to a ballroom dancing competition. It’s dancing that brings choreography to chaos, and Weise treads the line between the two with care and skill in order to best serve Fugard’s point: that all souls moulder under the inhumanity of a system like Apartheid.