Nobody who saw South African director Yael Farber's stunning version of Mies Julie or her Old Vic reinvention of The Crucible will be surprised to hear that her new production is an absolute humdinger. I found every second of this three-hour show on the National Theatre's Olivier stage riveting in its visual imagination, seriousness of purpose and dramatic invention. It's still in previews until the end of March, but I think it is the best piece of theatre I have seen on the South Bank since Nicholas Hytner passed the baton to Rufus Norris. Get your tickets now before the reviews come out.
Last night the National's two biggest stages were both performing big plays by black American playwrights, with mostly black casts -- a sign of the way Norris has championed cultural diversity in a way that breaks new ground. Both Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by August Wilson at the Lyttelton, and now Lorraine Hansberry's Les Blancs in the Olivier are outstanding productions of great plays about the black experience.
Of the two, Hansberry's sweeping drama set in an unnamed imaginary African country at the end of the colonial period is the one that speaks to me personally as someone who has twice lived in Africa, first as a child in Sudan and much later as a working journalist in 1980s Zimbabwe. Before last night I knew nothing at all about Hansberry, who is best known for her African-American family drama A Raisin In The Sun. Les Blancs (The Whites) was unfinished when she died at 34 of pancreatic cancer in 1965, and the work was put together by her ex-husband and literary executor Robert Nemiroff. I've seen lots of plays set in 20th century Africa that take apart its racial and political faultlines, but never one as acute as this -- written by a playwright who (I believe) never set foot on the continent.
Don't be fooled by the title into thinking that the play might just possibly have become a little dated after half a century; even in South Africa, the role of white people on the African continent is now marginal, and the continent's many conflicts are no longer primarily matters of race. But Les Blancs, while capturing the racial faultlines of decolonisation, is also a very subtle play about multiple black identities. Hansberry uses elements from various African countries -- Kenya and the Mau Mau revolt of the 1950s, the chaotic 1960s conflict in the Belgian Congo, and the rigid racial oppression of white-ruled Rhodesia, to create a hybrid African colony that becomes a universal symbol for all the others. Tschembe Matoseh, the central character, has returned to his native village from exile in London, where he has a European wife and a young son, at a time of rising violence and uncertainty. Liberal American journalist Charlie Morris, who has also arrived in this remote spot to write a flattering profile of a legendary mission station hospital, urges Tschembe to act and prevent a bloodbath, but his divided identity leaves him paralysed and Hamlet-like. As Tschembe, Danny Sapani creates a vivid picture of an African intellectual displaced from the land where he grew up, for whom home is now somewhere else. His scenes with the blind Madame Neilsen (Sian Phillips), wife of the unseen Schweitzer-like minister who has headed the mission station for four decades, are the best in the play.
The story moves from the mission station itself (unhygienic and with no electricity like Schweitzer's Lambarene) to the family setting of Tschembe's home, where he comes face to face with his two brothers, the younger of whom, Eric, is a deeply troubled young man of mixed race whose antecedents are not revealed until near the end of the play. Hansberry's gift for creating characters and for generating tension between them is evident throughout. What Farber creates with the help of designer Soutra Gilmour is a stage framework of breathtaking beauty that fully uses the Olivier's revolve stage and sound and lighting to best advantage. Unlike some productions at the National in which over-emphatic design has left little space for acting, this set is sparse and gives the actors plenty of room to perform. Visually and aurally, the opening of the play is breathtaking in is use of music and mime to set the scene. Farber has a rare gift for knowing when to let the words fall silent and using space and movement to tell a story.
There are lots of other good performances by Clive Francis as the uniformed racist Major Rice, ordering a security crackdown around the mission station, by Anna Madeley and James Fleet as two doctors, by Tunji Kasim as Eric and by Gary Beadle as Abioseh, Tschembe's very Catholic brother. Africa has moved on since the 1960s and the battles of today are not about black/white tensions. Instead the faultines are between African black elites, black politicians who won't give up power, and their long-suffering populations. Hansberry's play, seen half a century later, is nonetheless a work of prophesy and real political insight, brought to life by an award-winning director who is one of world theatre's biggest talents.