Captivating, commendable theatre

Mahle Sithole as Sam and Joshua Handley as ‘Hally’ in the DHS production of Master Harold… and The Boys, directed by Liesl Coppin.

STAGE: Master Harold… and The Boys – Seabrooke’s Theatre, Durban High School
Note: Final performances at 7pm today and tomorrow (Monday and Tuesday, May 23 and 24).

HATS off to Durban High School pupils and their drama teacher and director of this production, Liesl Coppin, for crafting a captivating, commendable piece of theatre at a time when, amid Covid-19 horrors and restrictions, simply being in a theatre again is a joy.

Athol Fugard’s classic, 1950s-set, one-act drama, long one of my favourite South African plays, was originally banned in this country in the apartheid era because of the explicitness of its action and dialogue. It had its first performance in 1982 in the US, with Danny Glover and Zakes Mokae alongside Zeljko Ivanek, and quickly moved to Broadway.

Largely autobiographical, Fugard’s story has gone on to become one of his most popular plays. It is also one of his most gripping and powerful, the strong ending highlighting the choice faced by white South Africans – join blacks in brotherhood or try to remain “masters” in isolation and impending darkness.

At the centre of the drama is the growing tension between a white Cape schoolboy and his longtime friends, the two cheerful African men, Sam and Willie, who work as waiters at Harold’s parent’s St George’s Park café. Sam and willie call the lad ‘Hally’.

Director Coppin – best known as a singer-actress and for her award-winning, highly amusing performance as groovy Kenny in the popular music revue, The Glitter Girls – does a fine job with her small team, moving her trio of actors around the stage with deftness, care and attention to detail.

She also very wisely called on KickstArt’s award-winning Greg King to design and construct her set. The Seabrooke’s Theatre stage is very small but is lent great impact and added dimension by wonderful, detailed work from King. Depicting a café interior with windows overlooking a foliage-heavy exterior, the set is angled diagonally to provide the illusion of depth. It is truly striking and a keen eye might spot some clever reuse of an exterior backdrop from Sylvia, a KickstArt comedy also staged in this theatre.

Mahle Sithole as Sam and Sanele Pryce Lewis as Willie in Master Harold … and The Boys. Sanele is alternating with Alitha Leeuw.

Joshua Handley shows great promise, giving a nuanced, assured and affecting performance in the role of Standard 9 pupil Hally, who spends a rainy afternoon after school in the café with “the boys”.

In between doing homework and recalling with Sam and Willie childhood memories that include playing in their quarters and Sam making him a kite, Hally also gets to learn a little about ballroom dancing – Willie being in rehearsal for an upcoming competition and the veteran Sam being a more than willing instructor.

Harry gets to learn a lot more during the play, specifically about guilt and remorse, when his temper gets the better of him and he starts to pull rank on his friends. He says cruel things in rage that he will never be able to reverse.

The catalyst for this change is a series of phone calls to Hally from his mother, who is at a hospital visiting the ill, alcoholic father that Hally outwardly detests but truly loves.

The wise and amiable Sam is played with charm and confidence by Mahle Sithole. He is a very likeable stage presence but, sadly, his projection was often poor, his words often muffled, at Sunday’s matinee.

Both Mahle and Sanele Pryce Lewis (who is alternating in the role of easy-going Willie with Alitha Leeuw) sport grey streaks in their hair to appear older in a production which has drawn on award-winning Michael Taylor-Broderick as lighting consultant.

Presented over 75 minutes or so without an interval, this production is a superior effort for a school production and most certainly deserves a visit.

Note that, in line with Covid-19’s 50% capacity restriction, only 60 patrons are permitted at each performance. Tickets cost R20 for pensioners and school pupils, and R50 for adults. They are available at the theatre (cash only) on the night or by contacting the finance office at Durban High School.

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