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BWW Review: LES BLANCS, National Theatre At Home


BWW Review: LES BLANCS, National Theatre At Home

BWW Review: LES BLANCS, National Theatre At Home Next up in The National Theatre at Home series of broadcasts we find a gem of a play coming straight from their archives, Lorraine Hansberry's staggeringly topical Les Blancs. Originally staged in 2016 by director Yaël Farber, it was posthumously completed by Hansberry's former husband Robert Nemiroff for a Broadway run, and then reworked by dramaturge Drew Lichtenberg, Joi Gresham (director of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust), and Farber herself for the production at the National.

The show was well received back then, gathering a glittering sky of star ratings. Now, under the lights of everything we see unravelling on our doorstep, Les Blancs turns into an even more jarring reminder of the disgraceful history that laid the groundwork for societal injustice and prejudice.

An anonymous African country in an unspecified time is on the brink of a civil war. The unrest resounds with the anger and pain felt from European colonialism that's hurting the country and its population under the guise of a fruitful mission. American journalist Morris (Elliot Cowan) - who's there to report on the outstanding achievements of the mission - watches on as the revolution starts, while Tshembe, a well-travelled expat with a brand-new European family, has come back home for his father's funeral.

Farber paints vivid tableaux of racism and ruthless imperialism, drawing a sharp critique that stands the passage of time. A mere four years since its UK debut, Hansberry's harrowing vision strikes anew. "There are some things that cannot be forgiven," says Danny Sapani unrelentingly as Tshembe. He observes the humiliation and disrespect that the white guests of his land impose on his own people and is torn. He now shares morals, attitude and even ethics with them, but not an inch of their privilege and outlook. An inestimable, vibrant reflection arises when it's clear that the antagonisation of the same people the European invaders have enslaved, abused and killed is carved into their own system.

"Where were you when we protested without violence against violence?" Tshembe says to Morris in a speech that today would stoke the fires of protesters everywhere. Les Blancs becomes a must-see in this climate, with the broadcast premiering mere days after a vaccine for COVID-19 began testing in Africa, of all places. While it's impossible to rectify the damage that's been done, it's time we dismantle the systemically racist structures that have built our society. Injustice needs to be challenged.

This production is also exceptionally well acted and directed, with an evocatively skeletal and precarious-looking set by Soutra Gilmour. Adam Cork adds a galvanic sound design accompanied by an all-female Umngqokolo troupe, who become indispensable in the delivery of the piece. Sapani's stalwart performance finds fertile ground in Siân Phillips's, who introduces a sophisticated and now resigned missionary with her portrayal of Madame Neilsen.

Les Blancs goes to the root of the matter. It questions Western moral codes and stances, highlighting the brutal expansion of imperialism and racism. It grips viewers with its multifaceted arguments and elaborations, singling out the various issues that cleared the path for what's happening outside our doors. It requires the audience to look within, educate themselves, and actually do the work instead of leaving it to a black square on Instagram.

Watch Les Blancs on The National Theatre's Youtube until 9 July

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