Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Review Les Blancs

Les Blancs
by Lorraine Hansberry

Circling The Wagons
In an unnamed African colony, sits a skeletal missionary building, the beleaguered inhabitants of which are sitting out the last days of Empire clinging to their faith in medical science, religion and their reason for being there.

With its backdrop of the vast African landscape, Les Blancs, was put together  posthumously by writer Lorraine Hansberry's ex husband Robert Nemiroff  from her notes and drafts after her premature death from cancer in 1965.

Best-known for A Raisin In The Sun - in some ways a response to Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing!, this work with its anthropological sounding title is a riposte to Jean Genet's   Les Nègres, clownerie (The Negros, the clown show) .

The settlers, no longer pioneers but oppressors, and the nomadic Africans are joined by an American journalist (Elliot Cowan) and, separately, Tshembe (Danny Sapani) who, on the death of his father, has returned to his homeland from London where he has studied at university and taken part in an independence movement.

An unfinished play, it's first performance was in 1970, five years' after the writer's death, and, while it has an epic sweep, the patchwork is somewhat roughly stitched and, for us, the joins do show.

It's probably a moot point what were the playwright's original intentions, especially as the paucity of female voices is noticeable. Apart that is from the roles of Madame Neilsen (Siân Phillips), the mission's blind  matriarch, and Marta (Anna Madeley), the practical medic - surely a shoe-in movie role for actress Ingrid Bergman

So it's an uneven piece, with a rather conventional first act bringing in a recognizable structure, both covering colonialism and the history of literature. There are touches of Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O'Neill.

Nevertheless, the staging by South African director Yaël Farber with designer Soutra Gilmour, using the full resources of the Olivier stage, brings another dimension. 

Recently there has been a fad for revolving stages in traditional theatres which, to be honest, has irritated the hell out of TLT and her own bush companion. But we've never quite clarified to ourselves exactly why until we saw the apt use on the huge - and we mean huge - Olivier stage. Other theatres are just far too small to do full justice to a revolve and allow the audience clear sightlines.

Here it works to spectacular effect,  giving a full HD treatment to a vast symbolic African horizon with its changing light and seasons. The  onion layered revolve blows up the dust from the arid ground while the tall, stooping, skeletal African figure of "The Woman" (Sheila Atim) lopes across the vista.  

The play itself has a kickback in the second act which takes it away from the neater dichotomies before the interval.  

Throughout there are also glimpses of an intricate, shifting structure, still in progress, encompassing the history of America and its relationship to colonialism as well as a history of Africa and European exploitation.   

Yet the major strand of the mixed race child Eric (Tunji Kasim) feels undeveloped - or maybe, more accurately, truncated - if still vital.

This production blew TLT and her jalopy  away with its unforgettable staging and the soundscape from the Ngqoko singers (music director Joyce Moholoagae) . 

But it also left us with major thorny questions, principally about the author's intent, thrown up by the history of this play and the place of it within the National Theatre's season. At the same time, TLT, as an audience member "in the moment", cannot deny the undoubted power of this production with all its visceral qualities. A green light.

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