A few weeks ago, during its initial run of transmissions, I was mildly critical of the National Theatre at Home scheme for playing it relatively safe with their selection of productions. However, since then they have delved further and further into their archive and the result has been more challenging fare. This was the category into which the latest offering, Les Blancs falls. The original production was presented at the National in 2016 and directed by Yaël Farber, a South African with a reputation for hard hitting and even controversial works (her award winning 2014 version of The Crucible is available on the Digital Theatre streaming service). The play is by American writer Lorraine Hansberry who died before finishing it, so it was adapted and completed by her partner Robert Nemiroff. Despite the fact that Hansberry considered Les Blancs her most important play it is apparently rarely staged.
The title is a direct reference to Jean Genet’s Les Nègres and Hansberry’s themes are colonialism, identity and the clash of opposing cultures. There is no doubting it is a strong piece of work with little by way of light relief and characters that are vividly drawn and expertly played. The central figure is Tshembe Matoseh (Danny Sapani) a man who has married an Englishwoman and lived there for a number of years but is returning to his homeland following the death of his father who has founded a resistance movement to drive out the white colonialists. After many years apart he meets his brother Abioseh (Gary Beadle) and half-brother Eric (Tunji Kasim). The former is on his way to becoming a Catholic priest, the latter is little more than a “house boy” to the white settlers; the former is set to betray the resistance while the latter wants to join them. Tshembe is deeply conflicted, none more so that when he encounters white American journalist Charlie Morris (Elliot Cowan) with whom he has a couple of heated debates which are the most powerful moments of the play.
As the arguments rage back and forth the white settlers are acutely aware of their growing predicament though most of them have no particular antagonism towards the indigenous people. Indeed, they try to offer medical and spiritual guidance led by the old blind Madame Neilsen (Siân Phillips) who seems to be a soothsayer figure though not a particularly effective one. If there is a villain of the piece it is Major George Rice (Clive Francis) who embodies all that is wrong with colonialism and uses a gun and his supposed racial superiority to retain power. However, and if you’ll forgive the obvious, Hansberry does not paint everything in terms of black and white. People on either side of the debate are willing to kill or, alternately, sit back and let events take their course. Even the American journalist is forcefully reminded that there are enough racial issues to be confronted in his own country rather than meddling in another’s; that is certainly as true today as it was when the play was written.
There are some very good performances indeed with Sapani’s central figure brought into sharp focus as he wrestles with his conscience and conflicting ideologies. Siân Phillips and Clive Francis also hold the attention whenever they are on stage. The whole cast make an excellent ensemble and approach the text with conviction and a sense that they have something important to offer. However, throughout the play I had the nagging feeling that something was missing and it was only afterwards that it struck me. Despite being a play by a woman of black African descent there isn’t a single character or voice which explores that. The two main female characters are white and any black women in the piece are there to create atmosphere or cover scene changes with ritual chanting. The only character to inhabit the missing space at all isn’t even a character. Sheila Atim lopes menacingly but silently around the stage periodically embodying some idealisation of Mother Africa (in the cast list she is designated as The Woman) and is therefore reduced to being a dramatic cipher. In one very clumsy bit of direction (to be fair, probably the only bit) The Woman climbs onto Tshembe’s back; a heavy-handed visual metaphor which destroyed the mood because it looked so ludicrous.
Soutra Gilmour’s settings give the play an epic scope and there is a particularly effective ending. While I think this was an important play to broadcast and to see, I didn’t feel particularly enthused by it and the identified oversight certainly lessened its impact for me. Maybe there was a reason that Hansberry kept tinkering with the play right up to her demise; perhaps she too sensed that there was something missing.
Production photos by Johan Persson
Les Blancs is available on NT At Home’s You Tube channel until July 9th. Click here
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