Theatre review: Les Blancs

Written by Sebastian Whale on 8 April 2016 in Culture
Culture
The new adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play about unrest in colonial Africa is a stunning blend of tension and argument 

Audiences at the National Theatre don’t often engage in spontaneous rounds of applause mid-performance.

The serene and savvy theatre goers were forced to drop a habit of a lifetime, however, during Yaël Farber’s production of Les Blancs.

“You Americans think that the offer of a gin and cigarette can make 300 years of history disappear,” the character of a US reporter was told by Tshembe Matoseh, stunningly played by Danny Sapani, triggering the ripples of approval in the Olivier auditorium.

Les Blancs was left unfinished in 1965 by American playwright Lorraine Hansberry – the first black woman to pen a play performed on Broadway - after she died of pancreatic cancer aged just 34.

The play focuses on an unnamed colonised African country on the brink of an uprising to the British occupiers, as its residents abandon the use of peaceful protest in the pursuit of equality and their own identity.

We see these developments from the perspective of white missionaries, including Madame Neilson played by the excellent Siân Phillips, and the family of a village elder tribesman.

Throughout three women sing in Xhosa as a rotating stage provides the setting for this unrelentingly hard-hitting production.

Tshembe returns to his home country, leaving behind his European wife and young baby in London upon hearing of his father’s death.

The play masterfully intertwines his relationship with the occupants of the mission hospital, where he learnt to read and write, and his allegiances to the people of the African country.

As a haunting figure of a gaunt, silent African woman looms larger, Tshembe is left wrestling with his responsibilities – to his family in Europe versus his duties to his place of origin, particularly as a well-educated man capable of leading the uprising.

His exchanges with a liberal American journalist about the long struggle blacks have endured in the face of western imperialism, as the latter seeks to find common ground in their mutual pursuit of equality, makes for some of the most resonating and tense moments of this three-hour production.

Key to Les Blancs’ success is the way Farber toys with the audiences’ sympathies, as Tshembe confronts the choices in front of him.

After a period of protests, seeking to ensure black people were represented in government and other areas of public life, the revolution against the British occupation and the exploitation of the country’s natural resources turns violent.

Clive Francis, who plays the dictatorial army chief, Major Rice, is spectacularly unnerving – his thinly veiled racism adds to the atmosphere in his confrontations with the black people of the unnamed country.

While the revolutionists engage in brutal murders after decades of oppression, the play explores the origins of the violence and the impact of western imperialism. 

Writing in the 1960s, the prescience of Hansberry’s play cannot be overlooked. But it is Sapani’s towering depiction of the conflicted Tshembe who grapples with the hope and tragedy of revolution that leaves the audience dumbfounded. Farber’s stunning production is an absolute must-see.

 

Les Blancs is running at the National Theatre until 2 June.

 

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