Monday 25 April 2016

Les Blancs at the National, or, Whose Country Is This?

In advance of this performance I was worried that it was going to be another Norris era lecture – where the desire to make political points trumps drama. Fortunately, this turns out to be an enormously powerful piece of political theatre. In lesser hands many of these characters might verge into caricature, but this excellent ensemble in harmony with Yael Farber's effective direction successfully find that individuality.

Lorraine Hansberry's unfinished play, final text adapted (as the programme has it) by Robert Nemiroff is set in an unidentified African country embroiled in an increasingly bitter independence struggle. The use of the term Emergency perhaps hints at Kenya, but the story wisely doesn't get pinned down since it wishes to, and depressingly can, stand for too many places. The action takes place in a Norwegian run medical/religious mission in the heart of the jungle staffed by whites who turn out almost all to be, for all their apparent connections to the native population, as problematically racist as the white settlers off-stage. A palpable air of threat hangs over the central mission house (the main piece of Soutra Gilmour's set), abetted by miasmas of smoke and a superb soundscape (Adam Cork and the Ngqoko Cultural Group). The average audience member will probably anticipate the fate of the building, they are perhaps less likely (I certainly didn't) to anticipate the other, human, fate revealed on the last page.

Kings of War at the Barbican, or, Ivo van Hove makes a film

I've seen a good many foreign Shakespeares over the years, mostly at the Edinburgh Festival, and mostly they've been poor (though oddly enough not the last foreign language version of the Henry VI trilogy). Sadly this latest work by the in fashion Ivo van Hove is not an exception.  After the long first half I was just indifferent, by the end of the four and a half hours I was pretty fed up.

Van Hove has amalgamated Henry V, the three Henry VIs and Richard III (plus a bit from Henry IV Part II at the beginning). After sitting through the show I'm still unclear what he was trying to achieve by doing this. His deletions and inclusions can be curious but it is less those textual choices and more the overall effect which is the big problem. This is because van Hove succeeds in the surgical removal of pretty much any sense that there is a kingdom at stake, or that there are more than a handful of people inhabiting it or dying for it. The set consists of one enormous room, behind which are a set of white corridors which we see, interminably and ineffectively, on film. It's an increasingly boring space to look at. I suspect we were supposed to think of modern leaders launching air strikes from their bunkers (some of the visual projections are overt about this) but frankly this is illuminating neither about those modern leaders nor the Shakespearean text, and it isn't in any case followed through in a sufficiently sustained way.