Les Blancs

Lorraine Hansberry
National Theatre
Olivier Theatre (National)

Danny Sapani (Tshembe Matoseh) and Clive Francis (Major George Rice) Credit: Johan Persson
Siân Phillips (Madame Neilson), Elliot Cowan (Charlie Morris) and Anna Madeley (Dr Maria Gotterling) Credit: Johan Persson
Tunji Kasim (Eric) and Danny Sapani (Tshembe Matoseh) Credit: Johan Persson

Les Blancs is a big, meaty political play that constantly confounds expectations. The play by Lorraine Hansberry, best known for the very different A Raisin in the Sun, is so rich and dense that, at times, it has the qualities of a long novel rather than a play that comes in at just under three hours.

As a result of the playwright’s early death, this work was never finished and the version on show at the National has been adapted into its final version by her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff.

A piece that could as easily have been named Les Noirs is set in an unsettled, unnamed African country at the end of the 1950s.

Watched over by a slow-moving woman who might represent Mother Africa, the initial scenes, heralded by smoke and a matriarchal quartet bringing with them traditional music, introduce a troubled mission providing Christianity and healthcare, neither much wanted.

They are seen through the eyes of a provocative American journalist, Elliot Cowan as Morris, a naïve man who seeks simple solutions where none exist.

In the first of many contradictions and contrasts, he attempts to pigeonhole not only Anna Madeley's Doctor but the absent founder's saintly wife, played by Siân Phillips and a returning African prince. In this country though nobody has been drawn in black-and-white (irony intended).

Danny Sapani is the sophisticated Tshembe, a walking series of contradictions himself and one of three brothers, sons to the local leader. The old man’s death, one of many, leads to a series of debates about the benefits and crimes perpetrated in the name of colonialism. Ironically, there is a Chekhovian undertone to the scenes, as the formerly powerful await revolutionary change.

These are compared to the potential freedom-fighting actions of the oppressed Africans as they think of independence, in the knowledge that this will lead to the deaths of many innocent people on both sides of what is likely to be a long war, dividing not only racial groupings and tribes but even families.

Lorraine Hansberry loves twists and turns, many of which speak volumes through oppositional symbolism. An example is Tshembe, a proud African living in America with a white wife and child, who is simultaneously peace-loving and willing to contemplate violence.

He is also brother to an aspiring “Uncle Tom” priest and an illegitimate mixed-race, who is unsurprisingly confused about his own identity and raison d'être, respectively played by Gary Beadle and Tunji Kasim.

On the other side, Les Blancs themselves also painted in numerous shades of grey. Even Clive Francis’s bigoted Major Rice, sadly reminiscent of the comic figure in Fawlty Towers, has hidden depths, while the missionaries themselves are much closer to sin than one might expect, giving James Fleet representing Graham Greene-type alcoholic an opportunity for fine speech.

Danny Sapani takes the acting plaudits as the returning Tshembe, delivering a series of meaningful and thought-provoking speeches that are never trite and rarely simple. He gets great support from the remainder of the cast, most of whom get their moment in the spotlight.

A gripping production by Yaël Farber, with an atmospheric but simple design from Soutra Gilmour, takes a little time to fire up but, once in top gear, heads inexorably to a denouement that is explosive in every way. This is a play that seems very relevant to the world today and is bound to provoke strong and controversial debate amongst those lucky enough to see it.

Les Blancs is part of the Travelex £15 Season, meaning that tickets can be picked up at bargain prices.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher