Culture

Lorraine Hansberry's 'Les Blancs' Gets Extraordinary Production at National Theatre

The personal and the political are so interlinked in this play as to be inextricable, and Yaël Farber’s staging offers a dynamic mingling of the intimate and the epic.


Les Blancs

Run: 31 March - 02 June 2016
Playwright: Lorraine Hansberry
Venue: National Theatre Lyttelton
City: London

When Lorraine Hansberry died in 1965, aged just 34, she left uncompleted a final play, Les Blancs, a large-scale saga about an unnamed African country’s struggle for independence from colonial rule. The unfinished play was entrusted to the care of Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry’s ex-husband and creative associate, who gathered Hansberry’s drafts into a performable text, which was presented on Broadway in 1970 with James Earl Jones among the cast. However, the play received a mixed response and has hardly been seen since.

Les Blancs’ status as a lost classic of the 20th Century American stage is fully confirmed by Yaël Farber’s sensational new production, which has just opened at London’s National Theatre. Benefiting from a text that combines Nemiroff’s adaptation with fresh revisions by Farber and dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg, the production grips and sometimes startles, igniting the Olivier stage across its two-hour 45-minute running time. With Dominic Cooke’s production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom playing next door in the Lyttelton auditorium, it’s hard not to conclude that the National Theatre is, at the moment at least, doing a whole lot better by African American play-writing than Broadway can currently claim.

From the eerie wordless opening onwards, the atmosphere is heady, charged, dreamlike, thick with rot.
A considerable move away from the form of Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Les Blancs is a prismatic play, combining naturalism with bold expressionist flourishes. The genius of Farber’s production lies in the scrupulous way in which it attends to the work’s contrasting modes and moods. The echoes and associations run deep through the evening. At times the play suggests Chekhov in its attention to a coming new order; at others it reaches back to Ancient Greek drama or incorporates an interlude of Shavian speechifying; and in the next moment it can remind you of something as contemporary as Lars von Trier’s Manderlay (2005) or Claire Denis’ White Material (2009). At its heart, though, the play is a family story, for which an alternative title might be Three Brothers.

Tshembe Matoseh (Danny Sapani) returns to his native village in Africa after the death of his father following time spent in the US and Europe, which has included marriage to a white woman. There Tshembe reconnects with his two siblings: Abioseh (Gary Beadle), who, to Tshembe’s disdain, is about to become a Christian priest, and his younger half-brother Eric (Tunji Kasim), who appears to be sliding into alcoholism. As the complexity of the family’s history, and their relationship to the colonisers who’ve ruled and “educated” them, gradually becomes clear, Tshembe finds himself in the middle of an escalating violent conflict between natives and settlers, and is challenged with finding his own place in the struggle against oppression.

Siân Phillips as Madame Neilsen and Danny Sapani as Tshembe Matoseh in Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs (Photo credit: Johan Persson)

Hansberry’s play is a work in which the personal and the political are so interlinked as to be inextricable, and Farber’s staging offers a dynamic mingling of the intimate and the epic. From the eerie wordless opening onwards, the atmosphere is heady, charged, dreamlike, thick with rot. Soutra Gilmour’s revolving set makes the Mission compound of the absent “patriarch” Reverend Neilson its focus, spinning to the powerful chants and ululations of a quartet of South African female musician/singers: Nofenishala Mvotyo, Nogcinile Yekani Nomaqobiso, Mpahleni (Madosini) Latozi and Joyce Moholoagae.

If a hint of cliché occasionally hovers, Farber ensures that the production feels fully inhabited at all times, with sweeping servants and children standing as mute witnesses to atrocity. A wide variety of perspectives accrues: as the set spins, we see the characters from multiple angles, the actors working together beautifully as a true ensemble.

There’s Siân Phillips, as the Reverend’s blind elderly wife, recalling past friendship with the Africans and reaching out tenderly to touch the face of the returned Tshembe. There are two doctors (Anna Madeley and James Fleet), the one briskly efficient and unquestioning, the other disillusioned and self-loathing. There’s an American journalist (Elliot Cowan), who’s come to write a piece on the Mission and whose naïve can-do perspective receives some harsh tests. There’s Clive Francis as Major Rice, a deeply chilling embodiment of the coloniser’s sense of possession and entitlement.

The production even succeeds in rendering effective one of Hansberry’s hokier conceits: the appearances of a “Mother Africa” figure named The Woman (Sheila Atim), who stalks the stage, labouring and observing, and appears at moments of crisis in Tshembe’s narrative. At the centre, of course, is Tshembe himself, and Danny Sapani inhabits the role with a searing combination of passion and nuance that hot-wires us to the character’s conflicts. His scenes with the excellent Beadle and Kasim are particularly fine.

Les Blancs is a rich, robust, challenging evening of considerable rewards, a production whose depths require more than one viewing to fully assimilate. Opening with smoky apocalyptic rumblings, the proceedings are brought full circle at the end with an incendiary climax that’s as startling as it is inevitable. Part nightmare, part dream of fulfillment, these final moments confirm the production’s greatness and the extent to which Farber and her collaborators have done justice to the breadth and reach of Hansberry’s vision here.

Les Blancs is booking at the National Theatre until 2 June 2016.

9

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image