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Les Blancs – National Theatre at Home

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Writer: Lorraine Hansberry

Adaptor: Robert Nemiroff

Director: Yaël Farber

With monuments to historical figures coming under threat across the country, a re-examination of Britain’s colonial past could hardly be more timely. South African director Yaël Farber’s production of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs was performed on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage in 2016 and this recording thereof is now made available for one week online.

In A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry’s seminal account of black lives in 1950s America, a pivotal character, widely thought to resemble the playwright herself, expresses a deep yearning to learn about her African roots. Les Blancs appears to bear the fruits of such learning, but this results in one of the play’s chief problems – too often it feels like a history lesson and the writer’s gift for blending social and political issues into human drama, so evident in her earlier success, becomes blunted. Sadly, Hansberry died in 1965, before the play could be completed. Here it is presented in an adaptation by Robert Nemiroff of a restored text directed by Joi Gresham.

The setting is a mission in an unspecified British African colony in the 1950s, a time when freedom fighters (aka terrorists) are struggling to gain independence. Unsurprisingly, events are viewed through the eyes of an American, journalist Charlie Morris (Elliott Cowan) arriving to report on the work of a Christian mission. He finds the benevolent side of colonialism represented by two doctors, Willy (James Fleet) and Martha (Anna Madeley) and by the missionary’s semi-blind wife “Madame” (the wonderful Siân Phillips). In contrast, the oppressive and destructive side is personified by the strutting martinet, Major Rice. It does not help the balance or credibility of the play that Rice is written crudely and played by Clive Francis like a demented Bond villain.

A village elder has died and his sons reunite for the burial. One of them is Tshembe (Danny Sapani), who has travelled the world, settled in London, married a European and fathered a son by her. His immediate conversion to the anti-colonialism cause is unconvincing, but Hansberry makes him the mouthpiece for many of her arguments. In a long debate between Tshembe and Morris, Sapani and Cowan give anguished and impassioned performances, but they seem misplaced, because their characters make little sense, both becoming advocates for causes to which they are not fully attached. On an emotional level, the play works better when focussing on the friction between Tshembe and his brothers (Gary Beadle, Sidney Cole and Tunji Kasim), all of whom have taken different courses to align with or oppose their country’s occupying force.

Farber’s production is epic and atmospheric. Soutra Gilmour’s design centres around the mission/hospital on a revolving stage and Tim Lutkin’s lighting suggests a heat haze that blankets it. The camerawork favours wide angles to take in the expanse of the set, with Adam Cork’s music in traditional African style and tropical sound effects audible in the background.

If her characterisations and storytelling are flawed, there can be no questioning the eloquence of Hansberry’s writing when she is condemning the ravages of white oppression of black African lives and culture. It is vitally important for such accounts of history to be discussed in the modern age, but an important play is not necessarily a great one.

Available here until 9 July 2020

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