“Master Harold” … and the boys at the National Theatre review *****

“Master Harold” … and the boys

National Theatre Lyttleton, 26th October 2019

I was surprised by this. Not by the content. Athol Fugard, like his compatriot in the plastic arts William Kentridge, has more than enough inspiration to fuel his art from the history of his nation. Master Harold, like the other plays of his I have seen, therefore deals with the legacy of apartheid. But, being a three hander, with precocious schoolboy Hally whiling away an afternoon at the teahouse owned by his parents in the company of waiter Sam and helper Willie, and most obviously autobiographical, it offers more dramatic dimensionality than the two handers which typify AF’s classic work.

It helps that this is, as far as I can work out, a near perfect production, directed by Roy Alexander Weise, about to take on the joint AD role with Bryony Shanahan at the Royal Exchange Manchester, and responsible for Nine Night and The Mountaintop, (and slated to deliver a revival of Roy Williams’s Sucker Punch at TRSE and an Antigone at the Lyric Hammersmith), on a satisfyingly realistic set courtesy of his regular collaborator Rajha Shakiry. With two actors, Lucien Msamati (Sam) and Hammed Animashaun (Willie) at the top of their games and one, Anson Boon (Hally), who looks like he is poised for great things. Young Anson, with TV series The Feed and Shadowplay, and films, Sulphur and White, The Winter Lake and Sam Mendes’s one take WWI drama, 1917, is about to come to a screen near you, and, on the basis of his performance as Master Harold here, I can see why.

Now I am assuming that a lad from Northampton, who didn’t go to drama school, hasn’t done much in the way of Anglo white middle class South African, specifically Port Elizabeth, mid C20 (1950 to be exact), accents before. With the help of company voice coach Simon Money, and dialect specialist Joel Trill, though he nails it. To be fair this is an exact impersonation of AF’s own voice, winding back seven decades so up an octave, but it is still very convincing. As are the corresponding accents of LM, Sam’s education and knowledge outstripping his position, and HA.

AF’s father was a disabled jazz pianist and his Mum ran a boarding house at tea shop in PE. As well as being a top bloke and brilliant story-teller ,(an essay in the programme tracks his career as an activist and creator of subversive theatre, alongside collaborators Winston Ntshona and John Kani, academic and film-maker), he is also plainly a clever bloke. As, therefore, is the fictional Hally.

On the afternoon of the play Hally’s Mum has gone to visit the alcoholic Dad in hospital and phone calls reveal the strain on the family, with Hally pleading with Mum not to let Dad be discharged. The older Sam (45) is plainly a surrogate father and foil to Hally’s intellectual curiosity with Willie as more of a playful contemporary. Sam and Willie have clearly been looking after Hally for much of his life. The mood is relaxed, with Hally’s patronising attitude, and Sam and Willie’s tolerance thereof, just a given. Willie has asked Sam to help him learn to dance (ballroom crossed cultural divides in SA and here it is a metaphor for life). The conversation between the “friends” flows across a range of subjects. Yet we never forget that Sam and Willie are employees and that the condescending Hally is the “boss”, and eventually, in a fit of pique, Hally loses control and the racial divide is starkly expressed. This pivotal moment, and what follows, even as you guess something is coming, is still very shocking and as powerful a symbol of the stain of apartheid as one could imagine.

The play was banned in South Africa so received its first performances in New York in 1982. Its exposure of the corrosive effect of apartheid, the deflecting subservience of the blacks, the oppressive entitlement of the whites, is all the more affecting because of the lyrical and intellectual nature of AF’s dialogue and the depth of the emotional bonds between the characters. Like all his plays it takes its time, which can weigh down on the drama, and, at first, the writing seems forced, but I think reflects the reality of the complex relationship. It may be that AF has exaggerated the flaws in his autobiographical self, but, as we learn of Hally’s disgust at what caring for his father involves, and his lack of friends his own age, of Willie’s “real” life outside the tea shop as he gets on with the tasks he is set, and we see Sam’s dignity in the face of the everyday injustice that has stunted his life, I think it rings true.

William Kentridge retrospective at the Eye Film Museum Amsterdam review *****

William Kentridge – Ten Drawings for Projections, O Sentimental Machine

Eye Film Museum, 20th June 2019

The Tourist can’t really be doing with blockbuster art exhibitions in London any more. Too lazy to take the early morning members’ option and too impatient to put up with the crowds of selfie takers who clutter up the galleries and have no interest in seeing the art. Better to focus on permanent collections here, and in Europe, away from the hordes.

So it was a joy to spend a few hours in the company of William Kentridge in the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam. A wonderful building with some diverting displays and a ever-changing roster of films old and new from around the world across its four state of the art screens. And a beautiful view of the IJ from the caff. It pains me to say but it probably has the edge on the BFI. And then there are the exhibition spaces currently devoted to this, a display of WK’s breakthrough animation works created between 1989 and 2011 which he donated to the Museum in 2015. The 10 short films are set alongside a selection of the silhouette and map tapestries which WK has designed (some of which I think I have seen before in the Smoke, Ashes, Fable exhibition in Bruges) which similarly address the history of his native South Africa and the film installation from 2015 O Sentimental Machine which is centred on archive footage of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

For those familiar with WK’s work, which frankly should be all of you, there is nothing too surprising here in terms of his Expressionistic method and technique. The animations are comprised of the charcoal sketches which WK draws, redraws, erases and reshapes, which he then films with gaps of between a quarter of a second to a couple of seconds, to create moving, in all senses, images. The act of drawing and erasing leaves traces of the past to remain in the present in metaphor for the evolution of South African society, the cycle of remembering and forgetting. The animations allude to but do not always address key events in South Africa’s modern history both pre and post Apartheid, such as the Sharpeville massacre, the release of Mandela, the passing of abolition and the Truth and Reconciliation hearings.

The films set these events against the life stories of two fictional characters, the dreamy philosophiser, Felix Teitlebaum, who is most obviously the alter ego of WK himself and Soho Eckstein, an amoral industrialist who, through time, begins to see the human suffering his business empire has wrought and seeks redemption. Felix’s history is more focussed on his interior and love lives and on his questions about the world around him. Given their physical similarities though it seems clear that Eckstein represents a darker side of WK’s own nature and, over the course of the series, the identities of the two characters begin to merge.. At least that was what I saw. As WK says, in this series he is interested in “a political art, that is to say, an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings”.

Each film is accompanied by music either composed by WK’s regular collaborators or an appropriate classical piece. Even without the reflections on the evils and crimes inflicted by the apartheid regime on the South African people it is easy to become transfixed by the stories of Felix and Eckstein. Put the allusion and metaphor on top and the fascination of their construction, so simple yet so powerful, and it is impossible not to sit through every one. Which makes for a very satisfying couple of hours.

  • Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1989)
  • Monument (1990)
  • Mine (1991)
  • Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old (1991)
  • Felix in Exile (1994)
  • History of the Main Complaint (1996)
  • Weighing and Wanting (1997)
  • Stereoscope (1999)
  • Tide Table (2003)
  • Other Face (2011)

O Sentimental Machine is a little less immediate in its impact. it is made up of five screen projections, and various objects, to recreate the office of Leon Trotsky. The archive film of a Trotsky speech on the future of Communism, which is, give or take, overwritten with cut up subtitles, is drawn from the Eye’s own archives. WK and his collaborators provide additional footage involving various machines and routines with plenty of the trademark megaphones. WK parodies Trotsky whose secretary Evgenia Shelepina has to deal with his ever expanding writing. Apparently Trotsky was in exile in Turkey when he wrote the speech. He also said that “humans are sentimental but programmable machines” which became unreliable if they fell in love, thus providing the inspiration for the installation. Many layers then though the prime message I guess is the idea that technological progress and grand ideas may not necessarily be unalloyed goods and doesn’t necessarily help

WK was born in Johannesburg in 1955 the son of two prominent, ethnically Jewish, anti-apartheid lawyers. He went on to study Politics and then Fine Art, followed by mime and theatre at the Jacques Lecoq school in Paris. Which perhaps explains why his art is so committed, how it manages to successfully spans various media and why he has also been successful as a theatre and opera director.

The exhibition runs through to September. Of course you could go and hang out in a brown cafe of the red light district with all the other tourists ravaging Amsterdam. Or you could come here. You decide.

Blood Knot at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

Blood Knot

Orange Tree Theatre, 19th March 2019

To date I have only seen two plays by Athol Fugard. Both bravely examine racial politics in a South Africa divided by apartheid. Both are two-handers examining the relationship between two men, John and Winston, two prisoners on Robben Island practicing for a performance of Antigone in The Island, and here, in Blood Knot, half-brothers Morris and Zachariah who share a tiny shack in the “Coloured” section of Port Elizabeth. In both plays Mr Fugard is not afraid of taking his time, building out character, situation and message with a wealth of detail. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but, on both occasions, I have found myself being drawn in to the intense relationships where one man is “freer” than another in a society utterly disfigured by state-sanctioned racism. Though not enough timely convinced by the dramatic qualities.

Mr Fugard, who is actor and director as well as novelist and playwright, has been working at his craft for over five decades, has packed a lot into his life and has garnered numerous awards in the UK, US as well as his native SA. (He even has a theatre complex in Cape Town named after him which is about to show Kunene and the King after its run at the RSC).

Now I am assuming Blood Knot holds a special place in AF’s heart as he acted alongside his friend and colleague Zakes Mogae at the world premiere in Johannesburg in 1961, multiracial theatre in defiance of the regime. In the same year SA became a Republic and left the British Commonwealth, 69 unarmed black protestors were shot dead by South African police, the Sharpeville Massacre, and Nelson Mandela and the rest of the ANC Executive were found not guilty of treason by the SA High Court. The following year though Mandela was arrested, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.

Blood Knot, and AF’s other work (with his wife Sheila), his public support of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (which led to an international boycott of SA theatre) and the increasing international presence of his work outside SA, led to restrictions on his movement, including confiscation of his passport, and to constant surveillance and harassment. He worked alongside the progressive black theatre company, the Sergeant Players in the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in The Island, written with its original leads, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, as well as Sizwe Bansi is Dead, with its more obvious Brechtian and Absurd influences, also from 1972. His other most well known plays, A Lesson From Aloes, (which I stupidly missed when it appeared at the Finborough recently), Master Harold … and the boys, which is about to be revived at the NT, and The Road to Mecca, date from the late 1970s and 1980s, but he hasn’t slowed down continuing to examine the issues which have arisen in SA society since the end of apartheid.

Morris (Nathan McCullen) can pass as white but, for reasons that are never made entirely clear, has returned to live with his half-brother Zachariah (Kalungi Ssebandeke, who wrote the very well regarded Assata Taught Me performed at the Gate a couple of years ago). Under Apartheid, people defined as “Coloured” had a different status to those classed as White, Black, East Asian or Cape Malay. This meant that they were not confined to Homelands but their movement and employment was still heavily restricted and their economic prospects constrained. But, as you might expect, such classifications of those with mixed heritage, as well as being reprehensible in principle were difficult to “police” in practice. This is what the play explores.

The fastidious Morris looks after the shack whilst Zac trudges off to work every day. They dream of saving enough from Zac’s earnings to buy a farm, live frugally, with minimal social interaction but share a rich life of imagination. Zac, with Morris’s help since he is literate, strikes up a pen-pal relationship with a woman, but, when they realise she is white, with a policeman brother, they decide that Morris will have to take up her offer of a date in Zac’s place. Zac spends their savings on a fine “white” suit for the meeting, but, when the girl breaks off the correspondence, the clothes become the catalyst for a surreal, and increasingly provocative and complex role-play, or worse, where Morris, as “white” starts to bully Zac, and Zac in turn, harbours a desire to kill Morris. There is no resolution. They are tied together by familial love, but shattered by the system that they live in.

Given the quality of the dialogue, the sure hand of director Matthew Xia, now in charge of the Actors Touring Company and who was behind the revival of Sizwe Banzi is Dead at the Young Vic in 2014, and a very effective set from Basia Binkowska, (who also impressed in the Lyric Hammersmith OthelloMacbeth), I suspect I was always going to be partial to the idea of this. However the careful performances of both actors, with a palpable chemistry between them, definitely helped. I can’t pretend that the claustrophobic, dense structure and rhythm of the play, especially as it moves into the ambiguous final third, didn’t occasionally frustrate and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the distracting electronic sound design of Xana. After two powerful, if sometimes ponderous, performances of AF’s plays I think the next bite of the cherry needs to have a little more dramatic variety and a bigger cast. I gather Master Harold … has one extra character. Phew.