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Les Blancs review at the Olivier, National Theatre – ‘searing performances’

Sian Phillips and Danny Sapani in Les Blancs at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Sian Phillips and Danny Sapani in Les Blancs at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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From the outset, as women daubed in white face paint parade onto the stage, Les Blancs establishes its theme of redress. Set in an unnamed African country in a non-specific time (‘yesterday, today, tomorrow – not long after that’ is Hansberry’s note), the play tells the story of a small hospital run by a white missionary family, and its interaction with the community around it. With breathtaking scope, clarity and insight it charts the story of colonialism from its bloody beginnings to its bloody end.

Lorraine Hansberry’s premature death in 1965 prevented her from completing Les Blancs, but director Yael Farber and dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg have woven existing drafts into this tightly wrought version. And although Hansberry’s best known for A Raisin In The Sun, this haunting production makes the very strong case that Les Blancs may well be her masterpiece.

Farber allows the play to hit resounding notes of anger and pain, but excels in minute details too: the way that the natives clutch fistfuls of dust in deep chthonic connection to their land; the bloodstain from a boy dragged by a collar and beaten, which remains there as an indelible mark of colonialist aggression throughout the play. Scenes begin and end with threatening tableaux, lit like faded photographs by Tim Lutkin.

From poetry that soars to lines that cut to the bone, stinging as they slice, Les Blancs carries all the precise lyricism of A Raisin In The Sun but breaks into flights of expressionism too. At the centre of the narrative is its most potent character: a gaunt, stooped and silent woman (Sheila Atim), barely clothed, who haunts the stage.

Hansberry’s characters represent a vast array of humanity. She deeply understands – and demonstrates – that everyone is different, thinks differently, acts differently. Two searing performances dominate: Danny Sapani as Tshembe, an African man who has married a European woman, and Clive Francis as Major Rice. An officious, villainous racist – his character complemented by a moustache and uniform that strongly evoke Nazi iconography – Francis plays Rice with chilling, unrelenting callousness. Yet it is testament to Hansberry’s skill and Francis’s performance that he is still recognisably and believably human.

On Soutra Gilmour’s skeletal set, like the bare bones of a country ravaged by colonialism, through a text seamlessly stitched together by Farber and her team, Hansberry reiterates the basic lesson that warmongering men have never learned, not in millennia of aggression: invade, take someone’s home from them, tell them how to live and they will fight back.

With her vast array of characters and perspectives, from the do-gooders to the villains, we see the chilling ease with which we forget – want to forget – the dark chapters in history. And we see that the history of colonialism and where we go from there is, in this stunning piece of theatre, far from black and white.

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Yael Farber’s searing production brings Lorraine Hansberry’s unfinished play to life