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.

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