The air is thick with incense. Pungent. Powerful. Seductive. A steady, throbbing hum of almost melodic insistence punches through, anticipating something momentous. It comes.
Slowly, the light changes, along with the sounds. The skeletal structure centre-stage, a home, with a porch at either end and secrets inside, starts turning slowly. A tall, lone, strangely angular, muscular, lithe, and profoundly beautiful tribal woman comes into view, perhaps a warrior, certainly haunted, uneasy. Across the stage, four singing tribal matriarchs, all formidable but benign woman, some with painted faces, all dressed in traditional robes, blue and white saunter forward. Their musical wailing is primal, spiritual, connected to the land: umngqokolo, eerie overtones/split-tone singing mostly heard in mountainous Nqoko. Behind them, other figures emerge, silently, with a stillness borne of torment.
A white female Doctor. An American journalist. An older man, also a doctor. A brutal, white Colonial Major. An almost blind white matriarch. A young man with a fondness for liquor. A suspected terrorist, bleeding, tied by rope. The two sons of the recently deceased tribal leader, both very different, one married to a European woman, one about to be married to God. A rebel, indignant for change. Secrets, betrayals and refusals.
When the first gunshots shatter the quiet, the cold fear of terrorism grips. And never lets go.
This is Yaël Farber’s fascinating and quite wondrous production of Les Blancs, a play written by Lorraine A Raisin In The Sun Hansberry and adapted here by her widower Robert Nemiroff (and others). As Raisin is a play about racism, inequality and identity in America so Les Blancs is about those same issues – but for the white world, the imperialists, the invaders. Hansberry died before she completed the play so the work is both unfinished by her and, at least in this version, finished in her memory, with a collaboration involving Nemiroff, Joi Gresham, Hansberry’s literary trustee, Farber and dramaturg Drew Lichtenburg.
The result is an unqualified masterpiece. Vicious, insightful, urbane, thrilling and, most of all, intensely passionate. It’s both powerful and enlightening, shocking and uplifting. The strength and positions of the characters seems clear almost from the outset, but as the play progresses black turns out not to be black and white not white; grey abounds. It is hypnotic to watch unfold. The fiery finale seems inevitable, but also, counter-intuitively, hopeful.
Farber’s vision here is visionary and continually unexpected. Central to it is Soutra Gilmour’s set design, which is given extraordinary life by Tim Lutkin’s splendid lighting. Darkness, shade, and burnished light, together with the occasional burst of hot African sun, dances over the buildings and surrounds, creating an intense sense of location and tone which is quite remarkable.
At most points, watchers observe proceedings from the perimeters, sometimes angrily, sometimes sadly, sometimes in ways that cannot be read. But the notion that the events played out around the mission hospital and the tribal campfire need to be studied, remembered, contemplated, is crystal clear. Adam Cork’s high-pitched and contemplative music and sound perfectly complements the effect.
The narrative concerns the impact of white colonialists on a tribe in Africa. Two kinds – military and religious. The Reverend Neilsen has run a mission and a hospital for forty years; it is primitively and badly kitted out, but it provides the local community with some medical services. Two doctors work there; a crusty, disgruntled older man (Dr Dekoven) and a younger, dedicated, attractive woman (Dr Gotterling). Madame Neilsen inhabits the mission like a spectre, but a reliable one with a long memory.
In the tribe, the central characters are three brothers – Abioseh, Tshembe and Eric. Abioseh is the one to become a Christian priest; Tshembe, the one married to a European wife who has borne him a son – he wants to start a textile business in Europe; Eric is lost a little, partly because he knows he is only a half-brother to the others. Their father was not his.
The play covers a wealth of perspectives about Africa: the expatriate, the visiting outsider, the colonialist, the missionary, the dispossessed, the enraged oppressed, the hopeful oppressed, the almost lost. Each view is succinctly portrayed, and there is much to seriously contemplate when the wash of the drama has passed over you.
The programme for this production contains a note by Kristen Shepherd-Barr which articulates the concept of double-consciousness as one which underpins Les Blancs:
…how to live with two competing selves, how to assimilate into the dominant, racist society while maintaining intact one’s true identity which is at odds with that society and not recognized by it. The toll this takes on the oppressed individual is movingly depicted in Hansberry’s work…
I doubt there is a more succinct encapsulation of the underlying notions in Les Blancs.
Yarber, brilliantly, underlines this by having the phenomenal Sheila Atim play Hansberry’s character, The Woman, as both eternal and mystical, but real: she represents the spirit of Africa. She struggles, is almost borne down by oppression, hungers after her children and, ultimately, proves upright and indomitable. Without a word, Atim communicates a continent of pain, endurance and spirit. It’s a remarkable device and a remarkable performance.
But, then, the production is awash with remarkable performances.
Siân Phillips is in mesmerising form as Madame Neilsen, the missionary’s wife with a long history in the region and an uncertain future. She has two marvellous speeches which top and tail the play; both are superbly delivered and provide startling insight into the intricacies of the dynamics of the other characters. Both fragile and commanding, hers is a presence of infinite conviction, providing one perception of Africa.
James Fleet’s alcohol dependent Dekoven provides another, more astringent view. Fleet is wonderful, hiding a melancholy brusqueness under an affable exterior. The passage where he explains the harsh reality of life in Africa to Elliot Cowan’s zealous and naïve American journalist, Morris, is gripping – and disquieting.
Yet another perspective is provided by the ghastly Major Rice, played with malignant superiority by the gifted Clive Francis. Diminutive in size, Francis makes Rice the biggest character on stage and the one whose actions cause the most ripples. Despite his penchant for vicious violence, Francis manages to make Rice a somewhat understandable beast. His final speech is quite stunning.
Cowan is perfection as the lumbering symbol of Western Democracy, Morris, certain of the values of free speech and fired with a certainty that injustice will not be tolerated. He is a smouldering presence, especially in his scenes with Anna Madeley’s zealous Dr Gotterling, but he works wonderfully with all of the characters, helping their true stories to emerge. Cowan’s sensual self-confidence provides a marked point of distinction for the other men which, ultimately, says more about Morris and America than anyone or anything else.
The three brothers of the Matoseh clan each love Africa and want to fight for it, but each has different reasons for that, and proposes different methods. Gary Beadle is in terrific form as Abioseh, who sees assimilation and integration with the white masters as the way forward. His dreams for a country governed by black intellectuals in sync with the current white regime govern his actions.
Eric, the half-brother, suffers a lack of identity because of his father and the fact that his mother died giving birth to him. There is an Agatha Christie like thread about exactly who fathered him, but when the revelation comes, it is both shocking and elucidating. Tunji Kasim is marvellous as Eric, vulnerable, headstrong and articulate when the chips are down: his spitting accusation about what his brother Tshembe thinks it takes to be a man is spine-tingling. His joining up with the terrorist rebels is both inevitable and profoundly sad.
But the core of the narrative revolves around Tshembe, the brother who has abandoned Africa, assimilated with European ways and only returns reluctantly on news that his father was dying. Les Blancs focuses on him really, and how what is happening in his birth land transforms him. Danny Sapani is extraordinary as Tshembe; in a properly Shakespearean turn, he transforms the energy and direction of his character.
Many of his scenes are the very best moments of the night, including his debates with Beadle’s Abioseh and Kasim’s Eric and his quieter exchanges with Phillips’ Madame. But it is his astonishing, almost unbearably raw, denunciation of Morris’ glib suggestions about help from America which will be indelibly imprinted on your soul. It is a speech of sense and sensibility, passionate and deeply resonant in a time when parts of the world are as troubled now as South Africa once was. Sapani imbues the delivery with stark and vibrant eloquence, fuelled on generational rage and a life lived in indignity despite every care to be dignified.
His final scenes are as moving and bleak as anything seen on the Olivier stage in some time. Sapani’s performance here makes you long to see his Othello or Propsero.
In smaller roles, both Roger Jean Nsengiyumva (as the charismatic, brooding rouser of machetes and clubs) and Sidney Cole do excellent work. Cole is particularly wonderful in a moment where his entire body radiates pain, indignation and rising fury at the actions of Major Rice but he says not a word, standing still as the set rotates him into view.
Many of the themes here are similar to those encompassed in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom also currently playing at the National, but Les Blancs deals with them in an altogether more potent and satisfyingly theatrical way – especially in Yarber’s visionary hands.
Across the Thames, at the Coliseum, Glenn Close’s Norma Desmond belts about having “come home” in Sunset Boulevard. With this extraordinary production, Farber makes it clear that world-class theatre has “come home” to the Oliver Theatre – for the first time since Rufus Norris commenced his tenure at the National.