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.

Just about everybody on stage in some sense is trapped, but at the heart of the narrative is Tshembe Matoseh (the superb Danny Sapani) who has come back to bury his father, finds his relations with his two brothers broken, and himself unable to escape. His struggle to avoid the violence is gripping, but the shadow of the European family he has left behind is almost more haunting. About midway through he has a little speech of longing to be on a sofa with his wife and new son in a cramped little flat in London. We never see wife or son, but they are painfully present. Of the white characters, the most sympathetic is Dr Willy Dekoven (James Fleet) – the only one who sees, clear-eyed, the specific roots of the local crisis, who has become rooted himself to this world, and is as powerless as anybody to prevent disaster. Elliot Cowan's naive American Charlie Morris could, in a weaker performance, have grated – indeed his insistence that he and Sapani should be able to talk to each other is grating (but appropriately so). But as the crisis deepens his powerlessness gradually becomes more sympathetic.

One of the play's finest qualities is its avoidance of easy condemnation – this is visible in the treatment of Morris, but most strikingly of all in Clive Francis's Major George Rice. In many ways he is a ghastly man – racist, brutally violent towards the black population, dismissive of the attempts (however flawed) of the missionary community to treat them differently. At bottom he has no rights in this country. And yet, the tragedy is that he (and the unseen white settler community) are there, and they, in their deeply problematic way, also love the country. And nobody on stage can find a way to resolve those two conflicting claims that does not involve ever increasing violence. Finally, among the leads, we have Sian Phillips's Madame Neilsen – her delivery and stillness are equally compelling and, until the last moments of the play she comes across as one who has, as Morris puts it, built bridges with the black population. Yet, at the very end (and this only occurred to me on later reflection) she might be said to have an influence at least as terrible as anybody else on stage. An influence which further uncomfortably complicates questions of inter-racial relations and the location of power. Among the supporting characters there are strong performances from Gary Beadle and Tunji Kasim as the other brothers, Sidney Cole as the apparently loyal house servant and Anna Madeley as the not as good as she seems Marta Gotterling.

This is a searing, haunting piece of theatre. It offers no easy answers, nor much hope. It deserves to be selling out. Not to be missed.

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