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The Theatreguide.London Review

Les Blancs
Olivier Theatre  Spring 2016

African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry was writing this drama when she died in 1965, and her husband and literary executor Robert Nemiroff completed it for a production in 1969. 

Now director Yael Farber, Hansberry Trust director Joi Gresham and dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg have pieced together a new text from Nemiroff's and various Hansberry manuscripts and drafts.

(I gather that there has been further editing in rehearsal, since the play runs almost a full hour shorter than the estimate in the programme.) 

The result is uneven. It addresses a big subject of obvious great importance to the playwright, is filled with passion and eloquence, has one very powerful role at its centre and several strong supporting characters, and is without question the work of a major playwright.

It is also clumsy in its dramaturgy, with key characters who are too obviously just plot devices to give other characters the opportunity to say what the playwright wants to get said, and important scenes that play like alternating lectures rather than conversations. 

Between its several dramatic high points there are too many dead stretches where the energy level drops precariously – the whole last half-hour drags on long after making its points.

And, while this is not the playwright's fault, the play is written with the passion of a specific historical moment about the issues of a specific historical moment, both of which have passed, threatening to leave Les Blancs more an historical document than a vital and engaging play today. 

Hansberry's subject is colonial Africa, and her conviction that any white presence in black Africa is and cannot escape being racist and genocidal. 

The racism is so ingrained in even the most benevolent white consciousness that no diplomatic or political efforts by the blacks to improve their lot can possibly succeed, and terrorism and violent revolution are the only paths open to them. 

An American reporter visits a bush hospital run by a European priest-doctor (obviously based on the Nobel Prize winner but now almost entirely forgotten Albert Schweitzer). 

The doctor himself is absent, but the reporter quickly learns that things are not as rosy as the West's romantic image of them. 

The hospital is more primitive than it need be, suggesting that the whites who run it can't really believe the natives deserve batter, the natives are not particularly grateful for what they're offered, and this unnamed African country is being torn apart by both organised rebellion and random acts of murderous terrorism, leading the white military authorities to ever more repressive and violent reprisals. 

At the same time a somewhat Europeanised local man returns to visit his family. He is torn between wanting to be a voice of reasoned rebellion and just turning his back on it all, and finds that neither is possible. 

It is that African character who is the emotional centre of the play, as he is forced by events to consider every possible response to the very fragile racial stand-off that is to Hansberry modern Africa. 

Actor Danny Sapani makes what could be just the mouthpiece for the author's ideas – and is sometimes written that way – into a fully rounded character whose struggles to understand a world he thought he had left behind drag him very much against his will to conclusions he doesn't want to reach. 

In contrast, although the American reporter seems at first to be the play's focus, neither Hansberry's writing nor Elliot Cowan's performance (or Yael Farber's direction of the actor) can make him come alive, and he is too baldly a straight man and feed to the others, there to ask the questions or make the challenging statements that will give them the opportunity to speak for the playwright. 

A central debate between the reporter and Danny Sapani's character gets a lot of essential things said with conviction and eloquence, but it is the eloquence of the written word or lecture, not of real conversation, even between politically sophisticated men. 

And in a later scene in which a disillusioned doctor played well by James Fleet explains how the hospital's paternalism is just racism in disguise, Cowan's character is reduced to just asking the what-do-you-mean type questions that cue the other's revelations.

Meanwhile two of the finest supporting performances are by Clive Francis as an openly racist military man and Sian Phillips as a matriarch whose age allows her to retreat into autumnal disinvolvement, but neither can fully disguise the extent to which their characters are symbols more than people.

Even if I hadn't told you (and the programme hadn't told me) that Les Blancs was an unfinished play that several others had a hand in, you might have guessed it. 

Its good moments are too good and too much driven by a strong and committed authorial voice for this not to be the work of a major dramatist. 

But its weaknesses make clear that one more re-write, by that dramatist and not a committee of lesser writers, was needed to make Les Blancs the masterpiece it now just misses being.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - Les Blancs  - National Theatre 2016  
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