Les Blancs seems to have timed its arrival at the National Theatre (Olivier) perfectly. Its post-war colonial setting in an unnamed African country may not seem relevant today but tackling issues such as race, terrorism and the question of belonging as an immigrant it easily feels as though this was written in this decade and not 50 years ago.
Lorraine Hansberry’s title comes from her response to Jean Genet’s musical The Blacks (1961) and was her final work before dying aged 34 in 1965 and wasn’t staged until 1970. She considered it her most important work but its incomplete status (she was still writing until her death) means it is rarely performed.
Yael Farber (The Crucible, Mies Julie) creates an atmosphere of the Dark Continent, with traditional African singers and a smoky atmosphere, which reminded me of 2013’s A Season in the Congo, directed by Joe Wright, where nobody feels safe or at ease. Our protagonist could be a number of characters, Elliot Cowan’s Charlie Morris ,an American journalist disgusted with the colonialist racism who doesn’t confront America’s own issues of race, Danny Sapani’s Tshembe Matoseh, who returns after his father’s death after escaping to Europe and America, an experience which had both opened and closed his minds to white people and their attitudes or Sian Phillips’ Madame Neilson, a white immigrant who has tried to integrate and doesn’t understand her now low status amongst the natives.
The consistent theme is belonging; people trying to belong such as Gary Beadle’s portrayal of Abioseh Matoseh, Tshembe’s brother who has decided to become a priest rejecting African traditions, people failing to belong like Eric (Tunji Kasim), the mixed race brother of Abioseh and Tshembe who is raised with Christian name but is desperate to belong with the African’s fighting colonialism or Clive Francis’s Major Major George Rice, an old school colonialist who believes the white man has brought civilisation to the continent yet knows he is outnumbered and out of place relying on his gun and his race to get respect from the natives and his white peers but it is also looks at the fallings of both the white and the black characters. Characters that will kill rather than talk, characters who believe they are being paternal when they are suffocating, such as Anna Madeley’s Dr. Marta Gotterling. Despite the Olivier’s vast size it remains a claustrophobic piece and there is something haunting about Dr. Willy DeKoven’s (James Fleetwood) realisation that if given independence the African could live the quality of life a European would expect and had proven so in other countries.
At three hours with a 19:30 start it does drag a little, there are lots of scenes of actors running around the Olivier revolve and slow set changes, however where the piece picks up is the strong dialogue. I am not sure how much of the dialogue was Hansberry or whether it was National Theatre dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg but it is feels extremely modern and accessible with twists, that feel inspired by stories such as Hamlet and Cain and Abel, that whilst aren’t entirely unexpected they don’t feel like a gimmick to keep the piece moving.