Olivier, National Theatre, London (*****)
A landmark production in a National Theatre repertoire increasingly spreading its wings, Lorraine Hansberry’s rarely seen Les Blancs is more incendiary even than her A Raisin in the Sun, now regarded as an American classic, but radically breaking the mould despite its Broadway success.
Les Blancs (or The Whites) is something else entirely – an oppositional, African perspective that shocks, so alternative its viewpoint. Taken with Deborah Pearson’s Made Visible at Hackney’s The Yard fringe venue last month, times indeed they are a-changin’.
On the larger stage, Hansberry’s Les Blancs rides into the Olivier in Yaël Farber’s hands with maximum power and impact. Hansberry’s canvas is a comparatively small one, a single small Christian mission in Africa. But in the Olivier, Hansberry’s vision takes on extraordinary global depth.
Farber was the director behind the Old Vic’s visceral The Crucible and once again, her production throbs with authenticity.
From the opening scene when a chorus of African women circle the Olivier stage whilst a tall, stalk-like female figure, dressed in only the skimpiest loin-cloth, processes in the opposite direction, you sense a ritual unfolding.
It will lie in the homecoming of a prodigal son in search of an answer but within it is an even greater story of damaged identity. Where, along the fault lines of western and African culture, does Danny Sapani’s Tshembe Matoseh truly belong?
What we witness, in a text researched and adapted by devoted friends and Hansberry’s former husband, Robert Nemiroff (Hansberry died before the script could be completed) is a terrible division of loyalties and equally the fiercest of denunciations of Christianity and the effects of white rule and influence on Africa and its people.
Realism and symbolism merge as the unspecified colonial outpost comes under attack with Tshembe emerging as neither terrorist nor white man’s slave. He is his own man, but split and in the schizoid way of things, is married in Europe to a white woman. Like Hamlet, he has arrived home on the death of his father and like him, he will be forced to take reluctant action.
Sapani as the burnt but unbowed Tshembe is simply tremendous matched by Elliot Cowan’s American journalist, Mr Morris and James Fleet’s bitter, whisky-soured surgeon. But all deserve praise in a production that argues its case with magnificent flair and intelligence.
By Lorraine Hansberry
Final text adapted by Robert Nemiroff
The Woman: Sheila Atim
Abioseh Matoseh: Gary Beadle
Peter: Sidney Cole
Charlie Morris: Elliot Cowan
Dr Willy Dekoven: James Fleet
Major George Rice: Clive Francis
Eric: Tunji Kasim
Dr Marta Gotterling: Anna Madeley
Ngago: Roger Jean Nsengiyumva
Madame Neilsen: Siân Phillips
Tshembe Matoseh: Danny Sapani
Boy: Fola Akintola/Xhanti Mbonzongwana/Tumo Reetsang
Ensemble: Anna-Maria Nabirye, Daniel Francis-Swaby, Mark Theodore
Matriarchs & Singers:
Nofenishala Mvotyo (Ngqoko Cultural Group)
Nogcinile Yekani Nomaqobiso (Ngqoko Cultural Group)
Mpahleni (Madosini) Latozi
Joyce Moholoagae (Music Director)
Director: Yaël Farber
Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting Designer: Tim Lutkin
Music & Sound: Adam Cork
Movement Director: Imogen Knight
Fight Director: Kev McCurdy
Company Voice Work: Jeannette Nelson & Cathleen McCarron
Dialect Coach: Hazel Holder
Script Consultant: Joi Gresham
Dramaturg: Drew Lichtenberg
First perf of this production of Les Blancs in the Olivier Theatre, London, March 30, 2016