Master class

2011-04-23 00:00

“THE best of me is in my plays. I’ve never used deception. I hope I’ve never used a false emotion. I’m not conscious of having told a lie. That’s the writer. The man is a slightly different story. I would like to be a better man than I am. [But] one thing I’m conscious of — I feel a compulsion to be a witness, to tell the truth.”

That desire to speak the truth shows itself most strongly in the speaker, renowned playwright Athol Fugard, in his most autobiographical play Master Harold and the Boys, which has just been adapted for the big screen.

Starring Freddie Highmore, Ving Rhames and Patrick Mofokeng, the film centres on the relationship Fugard shared with two black men from New Brighton township who worked in his mother’s tearoom in Port Elizabeth in the fifties, and how that relationship was damaged when, frustrated by his alcoholic father’s crippled state, Fugard lashed out at the two men.

Rhames, star of films such as Mission Impossible and Pulp Fiction, might seem a strange choice to play Sam, the gentle, patient surrogate father in Hally’s life, but the film’s director, Lonny Price, who has known the actor for almost three decades since they studied together at the Julliard School in the United States, knew he would portray the character brilliantly.

Speaking about the character, Rhames said: “I think Sam could have been a great man, a Martin Luther King or a Gandhi, but he was a guy who didn’t have any possibilities of formal education. The point of the story is that the people whom we least expect to do it teach lessons in life to us.”

He said he tried to look for similarities in the lives of black people in South Africa in the fifties and the segregation in the southern states, like Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama, at the same time. “I then thought of my own personal situation. My ma and pa were sharecroppers in South Carolina so I was able to use my African-American upbringing to parallel a South African experience.”

As for the part of Willie, Price said he knew within 30 seconds that South African actor Mofokeng was the right man for the job.

“He has such a big heart on screen. Patrick brought such dignity into the creation of someone who is not intellectually sophisticated and yet tries to understand and communicate,” the director added.

As for Highmore, the young British star of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Finding Neverland and August Rush, Price says his performance is dazzling: “He has an extraordinary face, a gift of authenticity and spontaneity. Freddie creates life in front of the camera, he doesn’t just represent it. He is all things — moving, funny and always compelling. I think his is the definitive performance of this role.”

Nicky Rebelo, the man tasked with writing the screenplay, said he was filled with a mixture of excitement and trepidation when asked to take on the project.

“On the one hand I was honoured that a man I’ve always admired and believe to be not only South Africa’s best playwright, but also a writer with a great international reputation, felt he could entrust me with the task, and at the same time I knew it would be a huge challenge to turn his stage play into a feature film.”

Rebelo, who auditioned for the role of Hally for the Market Theatre production of Master Harold and the Bo ys in 1983, said his biggest challenge was finding ways to explore the world outside of the St George’s Park tearoom, the confined space in which the drama of the stage play unfolds.

To try to get a better understanding of Fugard’s work, he read the playwright’s notebooks, in which he left many clues about his relationship with his parents, as well as in his memoir, Cousins.

“The film adaptation allowed me to introduce Hally’s parents, who only exist offstage in the play, as important and present characters in the drama,” Rebelo said. “Athol was very adamant that the portrayal of the parents, whom I based totally on his own, had to be handled with sensitivity and respect and this is what I strove to do.”


• Master Harold and the Boys opens at Cinema Nouveau Gateway in Umhlanga on May 13.

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