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FringeReview UK 2016

Les Blancs

National Theatre

Genre: Drama

Venue: National Theatre


Low Down

Yael Ferber reshapes and directs Lorraine Hansberry’s unfinished masterpiece, designed by Soutra Gilmour. Danny Sapini leads.


The National Theatre’s conscious drive to diversity is paying dividends in this large-scale production in the Olivier, designed by Soutra Gilmour and directed by Yael Farber.

Certainly a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s final play is long overdue but one can see why: unfinished, then completed by her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff, now with a new version adapted by director Yael Farber, its protean provisionality might seem a gift to the current spate of adapting classics. Luckily the textual parameters are clear, the play though defiantly relevant, set in colonial Africa’s 1960s.

A spacious if urgently-paced reading of this three-hour drama soaks back from the audience the intense fetid air of dying colonialism cusping its own disaster, both on colonials and colonised. There’s no play like this; its resonance easily spans the fifty years since it was written. The first moments slow-build to an overwhelming sensual rationale in sight, sound and almost smell, of Hansberry’s supremely lucid text.

Hansberry’s powers were brightening and this ambitious reach was within her grasp before she died astonishingly young at 34. Here the playwright of A Raisin in the Sun tackles her most ambitious canvas: a missionary station with a ‘saintly’ absent Father Neilsen – think Albert Schweitzer with the same paternalist/racist package – is about to suffer eclipse when an American liberal journalist Charlie Morris (nervously right-on Eliot Cowan) turns up. Just as Tschembe Matoseh returns from London and an English wife and child, to bury his father. Tschembe travels light, but finds his baggage train turns up with a hard-drinking half-brother Eric (whose white paternity’s held in suspense, Tunji Kasim slides superbly off the rails here) and elder brother Abioseh who’s become a pastor in the white Church, betraying his people. Gary Beadle almost ossifies as he orates.

Anchoring this is nearly-blind Madame Neilsen. Sian Philips, magisterially inhabits and humanizes what was already poignantly nuanced by Hansberry, providing a foil to Morris’ anxious if not callow liberalism. She knew the three brothers’ mother, and thus knows the drumming means a funeral’s – that mother’s widower’s. This is Hansberry’s special gift with the whites of the title. Even in complicit late colonialists she carves out empathy, well-meaning disasters and attachment to Africa as intense as Tschembe’s hidden ones. Neilsen’s relationship and final scene with Tschembe is the high point of the play, each understanding the other completely and accepting their fates.

Neither Madame Neilsen, nor Morris, or Dr Dekoven – an agile if quietly despairing idealist, portrayed by James Fleet – is simply etched in. Dekoven for instance warns Morris that the wonderfully adaptive Dr Gottering (a serene Anna Madeley) who exalts in making do with primitive resources, is deluded. Across the border in independent territories modern hospitals invite the country’s sick over the borders. Colonialism and Father Neilsen’s own cultural imperatives refusing to further the rights of his ‘children’ have long festered to keep this place backward: the mission is almost deserted of locals, as literally a nearer drumming is heard by everyone.

Tschembe’s long exchanges with Morris certainly form the dialectic backbone and trash white liberal assumptions comprehensively. ‘I cannot hear you’ Tschembe ripostes over a literal din to Morris’ assertion that he’s not ‘The White Man’ and then as Tschembe also adds after a handshake ‘what does it prove?’ He has refused violence. Peter the servant but revolutionary leader points out that violent repulsion is the only historical precedent to success. When Clive Francis’s stereotypical Major Rice thunders in to punctuate the play with alarums and violent diversions, we believe them. Even Rice is allowed humanity, and inhumanity. He’s known only Africa, but it’s not the one needed.

Two acts of violence from sometimes unexpected quarters punctuate the narrative. I’m not entirely convinced by one of them, but it defines the future as Hansberry unerringly guessed it.

Danny Sapini’s Tschembe Matoseh towers as moral force and a literal one: he’s rarely offstage and his narrative arc, his refusals and reluctance to engage for either side, is almost flawless: a hugely complex projection of a potentially great man’s conscience in crisis. This alone raises the status of the play to a classic of Ibsenite proportions.

Farber’s textual solutions seem workably definitive (Nemiroff’s edited texts suggests deletions and wordy directions), and the circling Woman (Sheila Atim) is one of those symbols who don’t seem stuck on, but act as unflinching witness. Farber has made this cohere and almost never seem too long: Sapini supremely, Cowan, Phillips, Madeley, Fleet and Francis all dispatch long conversations at each other with a naturalism and vividness that never flags, even if elsewhere the pauses between for atmosphere seem to drain the verbal power a notch or two.

Adam Cork’s music moves from chant and drumming to an orchestration of Africa that however westernized, seems as authentically sourced as an outsider can judge. Les Blancs’ staging is vast too, the Oliver’s design with Soutra Gilmour’s fragile leaf-meal mission hut wafer-like in the centre of a huge revolve where runnings-off presage a whole people circling, show a terrible beauty being born.