Review: Nothing Is Black And White In Les Blancs

Les Blancs, National Theatre ★★★★☆

By Sam Smith Last edited 30 months ago
Review: Nothing Is Black And White In Les Blancs Les Blancs, National Theatre 4

Les Blancs is a little known masterpiece by playwright Lorraine Hansberry. She left three draft versions of the work on her death in 1965, and it was subsequently completed by her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff. It eventually premiered on Broadway in 1970, but has not enjoyed that many outings since, making this current opportunity to experience it at the National Theatre particularly welcome.

Set in a fictitious African country at around the middle of the twentieth century, it explores how colonialism has played out in one specific region as well as the country and continent more generally. In doing so, it exposes the horrors of imperialism and hardly advocates it, but it is far too clever to label the two sides involved simply as good and evil. It enables a range of voices to be heard, and also reveals how the same individual can adopt a variety of stances as their own unique situation offers them multiple perspectives on life.

A mission came to the region in question forty years earlier and, no matter how one views the imposing of one culture on another, it was in basic terms well intentioned and hard to equate with the wider 300-year long ‘rape’ of the continent. Indeed, the Reverend Neilsen, who is still in post, introduced a hospital as well as a church and wanted both to become an integral part of the community that already existed there.

However, as the wider Western forces have moved to assert their authority and squeeze the Africans, this has forced the latter into rebellion, leading the colonials to step up their military efforts to control matters. Into this situation walks Tshembe Matoseh who left the country several years earlier and now has a white wife and a child in England. He has returned for his father’s funeral, and is caught between his private responsibility towards his family, half of whom are in the West, and his public loyalty to his people.

Danny Sapani as Tshembe Matoseh and Clive Francis as Major George Rice © Johan Persson
Danny Sapani as Tshembe Matoseh and Clive Francis as Major George Rice © Johan Persson

This gives him a unique perspective on the situation. When he argues with an American journalist, who also claims that he sees things objectively as an outsider, he highlights the fact that for every germ the hospital eradicated the colonials introduced another through new diseases. With his own people, however, he says they could never justify murdering the Reverend, and asserts that any rebellion would be crushed as they only have rudimentary weapons. One of his brothers has converted to Christianity and wishes to modernise the country through peaceful means and co-operation, but others assert that rebellion is only way to get the other side to agree a settlement in the first place.

As the play progresses more revelations arise concerning individual characters, and it is interesting to see how so many of the debates presented sound like those that are played out in the media today. When an entire white family is murdered the journalist makes one point concerning the Africans’ situation, and is told that it sounds like he is justifying the killings and terrorism. As the problems escalate, the need for a compromise becomes urgent, and yet this is what neither side is prepared to contemplate as they see the wrongs that have been done to themselves.

For all the complexities to be found in many of the characters, there are times when it feels as if they exist to represent a set of values and verbally present a series of arguments. However, another of the play’s strengths is the way in which it explores and rationalises stances that most people put in a similar situation would arrive at instinctively and primarily for emotional reasons.

Les Blancs is staged very effectively by Yaël Farber on her National Theatre debut, with a skeleton frame that depicts the central compound’s buildings standing at the centre of a revolving stage. The performers are bathed in cool light, and there is chanting and singing as four women also play authentic African instruments. The cast is especially strong, with Danny Sapani as Tshembe standing out in particular, and overall this is a most powerful and thought provoking evening.

In rep until 2 June at the National Theatre's Olivier Theatre, South Bank, SE1 9PX. For tickets (£15-35) visit the National Theatre website. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 01 April 2016