Review: Les Blancs, National Theatre

Go and see this production. Go and witness the very essence of drama in practice.

Change is occurring now and right now in Lorraine Hansberry’s twentieth century masterpiece (expertly finished by Robert Nemiroff). The flames of revolution have begun to rise in an unnamed African colony after being fanned by hundred years of colonialist oppression. An American photojournalist visits a Mission of white doctors at the very time that this change is taking place. Over the years, the Mission’s white doctors have witnessed the indigenous people’s silent, peaceful protests turn to unbridled violence against the settlers, even in the form of terrorist attacks on innocent white families. This sense of imminent change and revolution is captured perfectly by the literal circular revolutions of the set, which I have never seen so effectively utilised in this theatre thus far. Soutra Gilmour’s design brilliantly conjures up a sense of great expanse in the Olivier space with actors entering and exiting up and down the aisles by the audience’s seats. It works in tandem with Adam Cork’s sound design, which mixes far off sounds from all angles to heighten the threat of the nearby ‘terrorists’, as well as that of the British bomber planes later on in the play. Musical Director, Joyce Mohologae and her fellow Matriarchs and singers patrol the stage with their indigenous songs and their instruments, scoring the piece with subtlety and terrifying power.

Hansberry’s play is a masterpiece because it gets to the very heart of dramatic conflict through its protagonist, Tsehmbe Matoseh, who is played with glorious passion and sincerity by Danny Sapani. Having left Africa some years ago to travel the ‘civilised’ world, Tsehmbe arrives back home for the death of his father, a prominent figure in the local revolutionary movement. As the situation in the colony deteriorates quickly, Tsehmbe is torn between remaining to fight for his people’s freedom and returning to the love and comfort of his European wife and child. It is this pull between conflicting loyalties, nationalities and identities that Professor W.E.B. Du Bois (a great influence on Hansberry) described as a ‘double consciousness’. And as our African Hamlet bellows and beats the ground with his hands at the end of Act 1, we witness him physically and mentally torn as pure an image of internal conflict of any drama in history.

Director Yael Farber emerges as one of the greatest facilitators of melodramatic story in the world. After witnessing the raw power of both her Mies Julie and crying my eyes out watching her production of Nirbhaya at the Edinburgh Fringe Festivals, it is a privilege to now watch her handle the seismic power of Hansberry’s words so organically – as if the author had chosen Farber specifically for this piece. The tenderness in Sian Phillips’ blind Madame Neilsen recognising her dear Tsehmbe after knowing him only as a child is managed beautifully. At the same time, Farber lends ferocious tension to the scene between Major Rice and the doomed Mission servant (and rebel in secret) Peter. After the decimation of the British air strikes on the colony, Roger Jean Nsengiyumva’s Ngago addresses the audience as his own troops in the most spine-chilling war speech one could possibly imagine.

The production’s final scenes play out with the indigenous youths at the edge of the stage on all sides, surrounding the Mission’s veranda and porch. It is unclear whether they are rebel fighters waiting to strike in the dead of night, or the ghosts of deceased rebels, returned to wage a transcendent wage on the imperialists that will never be subdued. The image harks to artist Kendrick Lamar’s words on behalf of the innocent African-American civilians murdered by today’s corrupt U.S. criminal justice system: “We don’t die. We multiply”. This corruption extends to the UK as well today of course, but not to Rufus Norris’s National Theatre. Les Blancs is a production that, in conjunction with the brilliant Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, represents the stupendous talent of diversity both in Britain and the world today. It is no surprise that these are the stories bringing the house down and raising audiences to their feet in standing ovations on press nights as special as this one.

Les Blancs is playing the Olivier at the National Theatre until 2 June. For more information and tickets, see The National Theatre Website.

 

Photo: Franklyn Rodgers