Les Blancs*** (National Theatre, Olivier)

Posted: April 16, 2016 in Theatre

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It is almost exactly two years since I saw Lorraine Hansberry’s deeply moving A Raisin in the Sun in New York, but memory of her fine writing has not diminished. I also remember how the character Beneatha, (Hansberry herself?) longed to learn more of her African roots and this is the play that digs to find those roots. Unfinished at the time of Hansberry’s sadly early death in 1965, the play has been adapted by Robert Nemiroff. The setting is a mission in a British colony in Africa during the 1950s when freedom fighters (or terrorists) are struggling to secure independence. Charlie Morris  (Elliot Cowan) is an American journalist, reporting on the conflict and we see events through his eyes as the mission comes under increasing threat. Hansberry’s earlier play reflected the burgeoning American Civil Rights movement through an intimate family drama which gave it power and purpose, but here the political arguments are allowed to submerge the drama to the point that the play often feels like a history lesson. The quality of the writing draws the audience in, but any play that has political debates as its centrepieces is not one that I am likely to warm to easily. There are strong compensations, such as the dignified performance of the great Siân Phillips as the ageing, near-blind wife of the missionary, a kindly grand dame of colonialism. The chief protagonist in favour of independence, but not necessarily the violent means of obtaining it, is Tseshembe (Danny Sapani), returning from a settled life in London to attend his father’s funeral. This is an impassioned performance, but the fury with which he presses Tshembe’s case often feels out of sync with Hansberry’s calmly reasoned words. Most grating is the character of Major Rice, a martinet representing the British security forces, who is written so weakly that there is nothing that Clive Francis can do to prevent him from appearing like a sub-standard Bond villain. After her successes with searing productions of Mies Julie, touring on the fringe, and The Crucible at the Old Vic, it always seemed likely that director Yaël Farber would excel with the Olivier stage to work with and so it proves, her steady-paced, atmospheric production making full use of its expanse on which Soutra Gilmour’s realisation of the mission building revolves. The production has the grandeur that befits the play’s epic themes, but somehow the drama falls short.

Performance date: 14 April 2016

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