When one enters the auditorium at The National Theatre the sense of foreboding envelopes you, the stage of Les Blancs is dark and smells heavily of smoke and incense. Set in rural Africa Les Blancs revolves around the events that take place around a missionary hospital compound at a time when the dominant colonial rule is struggling to survive. The play, directed by Yaël Farber, looks at the complexities, cliches and tragedies surrounding a country on the brink of a war of independence. It is a remarkably intense performance, uncomfortable, tragic and full of reckoning, as are so many of Yaël Farbe’s plays.
The focus of the story circles around Charlie Morris (played by Elliott Cowan) an American journalist who arrives at the compound to do a piece of the famous Revenant, a pious missionary who has dedicated himself to the local tribal community for decades, and Tshembe Matoshe (played by Danny Spani), an African expatriate who has returned home from Europe to the village to bury father. As the struggle escalates, people are forced to take sides and confront the history, assumptions and ties that bind them to the country and each other. As violence erupts friends, families, colleagues and communities find themselves divided with devastating consequences.
Danny Sapani is magnificent as Tshembe Matoseh and the exchanges between Matoseh and Morris are brutally frank, passionately charged and intellectually challenging. Matoseh makes short work of the Morris’ idealism and western assumptions and Morris is bewildered by the truths he finds. Matoseh is an educated and well travelled man, his global experiences provide a sharp lense through which the play dissects the enormous mess of the situation and the impossibility of finding a peaceful or meaningful way forward. The pain is heartfelt and the weight of the decisions clear.
It is an engrossing three hours that takes one on a complex journey through the different political, personal, cultural and social dilemmas that lead to revolution and bloodshed. There is meaning and symbolism in every moment; the play opens with the chanting of four African woman who enter carrying smoldering incense and take up residence on the side of the stage. A statuesque woman, dressed in rags walks purposefully on an endless journey. Her the path is clear and the destination is far. The woman is a constant feature of the play, she is Mother Africa, forlorn, abused, powerful and unrelenting. She is on the move, she is everywhere, touching everything and reminding everyone that unavoidable change is following in her wake.
For more information and tickets visit: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
Photography is from the NT website. Photographer is Johan Persson
A little about the author Lorraine Hansberry:
Lorraine Hansberry was the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway. Her best known work, the play A Rasin in the Sun, highlights the lives of Black Americans living under racial segregation in Chicago. Young, Gifted and Black by Nina Simone was inspired and dedicated to Lorraine Hansberry.
A little about the director and screenwriter, Yaël Farber:
Yaël Farber is a multiple award-winning director and playwright of international acclaim. Originally from South Africa, her productions have toured the world extensively – earning her a reputation for hard-hitting, controversial works of the highest artistic standard.