Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Theatre Review: Les Blancs

This year has so far been rather short of genuine must see shows for me.

Guys and Dolls, The Rolling Stone and The Painkiller certainly qualify but beyond that I would struggle to say anything else I've seen so far in 2016 is so outstanding. The serious drama front in particular has felt lacking and it’s high time this was remedied.

Enter the National Theatre’s production of Les Blancs.

Image source.

Les Blancs tells the story of Tshembe Matoseh, who returns home from London to an unspecified African country to bury his father. The country is on the brink of civil war with the final white settlers, some of whom helped raise Tshembe and his brothers, about to be violently driven out. The struggle tears Tshembe’s family - biological and otherwise - apart leaving a trail of tragic consequences in its wake. Light entertainment this is not.

Written, though never definitively completed, by Lorraine Hansberry (of A Raisin in the Sun fame), Les Blancs is a phenomenally powerful piece. And the NT’s production, directed by Yael Farber, is a phenomenally powerful production of it. In short: you should see this play.

Thematically, Les Blancs is a huge thing. Race, identity, family, guilt, religion, prejudice and more all get a good, complex airing. Set against this, the writing and the language itself are pleasingly straightforward. The writing pulls no punches and offers a brutal condemnation - through the voices of both African and settler characters - of colonialism and its racist accessories. For all that, though, it remains a complicated and nuanced portrayal of the motivations and attitudes, good and bad, of everyone involved - black, white and everything else.

This is also an extraordinary beautiful production. Soutra Gilmour’s stripped back design contains only one set - the skeleton of the settler run clinic - but is striking nonetheless in its use of a rich colour palette of ochres and reds, the ever present smell of burning wood and smatterings of sand across the stage. The use of, for want of a better word, authentic music sung and played by four extraordinarily versatile female African ‘matriarch’ musicians is exceptionally atmospheric. If this all sounds a bit Disney then that’s the fault of my description not the production. The overall effect is hugely evocative and gives the production a distinctive voice before a single word of dialogue is even spoken.

The production is also exceptionally well acted across the board with an absolute belter (technical term) of a lead performance from Danny Sapani. In his hands, Tshembe is a conflicted riot of love, anger, sadness, tradition and modernity; basically a character study in the question of where our identity should and does come from. It’s masterful stuff, as physically powerful as it is emotionally raw, and certainly the best single performance I’ve seen so far this year. He has strong support throughout the cast, but Sian Phillips and Gary Beadle are particularly good as the flawed embodiment of well intentioned white settlers and Tshembe’s Catholic convert brother respectively.    

Overall then a standout production and one that is quite simply a must see. And with this production and The Suicide running concurrently, it finally feels like Rufus Norris’ NT has hit its stride; a very exciting, very overdue, prospect.

Les Blancs is playing in the Olivier theatre at the NT until June 2nd.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Theatre Review: The Suicide

For my money there’s something immediately funny about a comedy called The Suicide.

But perhaps that’s just me.

Updated by Suhayla El-Bushra from a Russian original by Erdman, The Suicide (currently playing at the NT) tells the story of Sam whose aborted attempt to kill himself goes viral after it’s caught on someone’s mobile phone. In the aftermath, rather than trying to help him, it seems that the world and his wife want Sam to reconsider and when he agrees to a high profile public suicide hilarity ensues. Which I appreciate is an odd sentence.

Image source.

From what I understand, the original Russian version of The Suicide was hugely subversive and landed its playwright a forced holiday in Siberia. And if something similarly subversive is what you’re looking for then this updated for 2016 production is not for you, though quite what in current London theatreland is for you I'm not sure.

Even though it tries very hard - too hard - to be subversive, or at least edgy, this production just isn't. Some of its attempts feel curiously dated too. I mean, is there really not a new bete noir for lefty types since Margaret Thatcher? Have we really not moved on from the stereotype chav living in a high rise? Other attempts at edginess feel strained - I didn't in any way understand the need for a live drummer, as good as he was - or gratuitous; and the one fleeting and bizarre instance of nudity is very much both.

But for all that this Suicide is still a very entertaining and crucially very funny production. No, there’s nothing earth shattering in jokes about vegan food, Tinder or organic community cafes but I don’t actually care as long as those jokes are funny. Yes, the characters are almost all caricatures rather than fully formed people but, again, they’re all very funny (and some of them ring truer than is comfortable). In other words, if you judge this production on its own merits rather than hold it up against its revolutionary original then there’s much to recommend it. Chill the fuck out and enjoy it is I suppose what I'm trying to say.

If you are insistent on finding the political point that this play does successfully make then its skewering of various well meaning lefty tribes is very astute, something that can be attributed to the funny and ballsy cast as much as the writing. Paul Kaye in particular is great - not a phrase I use often - as an ‘activist’ filmmaker desperate to record Sam’s last moments and kickstart a new Arab spring. He conjures up a particularly unpleasant mixture of vanity, self righteousness and BO (that anyone who’s ever been to Brighton will definitely recognise) with the sort of conviction that makes one wonder how much of this is just Paul Kaye without dreadlocks playing Paul Kaye with dreadlocks. Either way it’s very funny. Kudos also to Pal Aron as a distressingly believable, mercilessly entertaining local (Labour) councillor with questionable morals and deep pockets.

This is Sam’s play though and on the night we saw this production that role fell, for the first time by the look of his curtain call reaction, to understudy Adrian Richards. And frankly he smashed it, giving a believable, funny but ultimately quite tragic performance of a young and confused Sam. Keep an eye on that name because on the evidence of this performance he deserves some considerable success in the not too distant future.

Technically, this production looks great too. There is excellent use of video projection, lighting and music (even if some of this does occasionally slip into the ‘trying too hard to be edgy’ category). The most impressive aspect of Ben Stones’ design though is its use of sliding screens and blocks to portray the shifting cityscape as well as provide a suitably fluid and neutral backdrop for all the noise and colours happening around it. It’s really well done as well as looking very funky. I love that word.

I really enjoyed The Suicide. Even if it’s not as clever as it thinks it is, or some reviewers would evidently like it to be, it’s still an entertaining, funny show done very well. Definitely worth your time.

The Suicide plays in the Lyttelton at the NT until 25th June.