Review: LES BLANCS, National Theatre Live

by Lynn on July 6, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

Streaming from the National Theatre, London, England, until July 9.

Written by Lorraine Hansberry

Adapted by Robert Nemeroff

Restored text directed by Joi Gresham

Directed by Yaël Farber

Designed by Soutra Gilmour

Lighting by Tim Lutkin

Music and sound by Adam Clark

Cast: Sheila Atim

Gary Beadle

Sidney Cole

Elliot Cowan

James Fleet

Clive Francies

Tunji Kasim

Anne Madeley

Roger Jean Nsengiyumva

Siân Phillips

Danny Sapani

Xhanti Mbonzongwana

Anna-Maria Nabirye

Daniel Francis-Swaby

Mark Theodore

Singers: Nofenshala Mvotyo

Nogcinile Yekani Nomaqobiso

Mpahleni (Madosini) Latozi

The play and the production are brilliant, timely and gut-wrenching.

Background: Lorraine Hansberry is best known for her play A Raisin in the Sunabout a Black family who moved into a white neighbourhood in Chicago, and how they coped with racism.

Les Blancs (Les Blancs, French for “The Whites”) was her last play and she had not finished it  when she died in 1965 at the age of 34. Her ex-husband Robert Nemeroff adapted and finished the play. It was first produced in 1970 on Broadway. Hansberry considered it her most important play.

The Story. Les Blancs takes place in a fictional South African country at the turn of the 19th  and 20th century. More specifically it takes place around the hospital/mission school established 40 years before by Reverend Neilsen and his wife Madame Neilsen.  The Revered came to bring Christianity to the natives and has continued to that day.

Working at the hospital are: Dr. Marta Gotterling who has been there for seven years, Dr. Willy Dekoven who is quiet, drinks too much and knows exactly what is going on in that country to those people, Peter an older Black man who is a servant and Eric a younger Black man who is lighter skinned.  

Charlie Morris is an American journalist who has come to the hospital to write about the good work of Reverend Neilsen. There is Major Rice the military presence, the typical overbearing British colonizer who has lived there a long time and believes that country belongs to people who look like him.  There is unrest in the region. There is local resistance to the white presence and that makes Major Rice more demanding about order and curfews.

Returning to the village for the first time since he left seven years before is Tshembe Matoseh. He went to England to be educated and then travelled the world, gained a perspective, married an English woman and they had a son. Tshembe has come home to see his dying father but he’s too late.  During his time away Tshembe worked for Kumalo, a man who was African and was trying to get the Europeans to recognize the rights of the African people of his country.  Tshembe got a first hand look at how Europeans and others treat Blacks with disdain, condescension and with a policy to not educate them enough for them to govern themselves.

Tshembe is reunited with his brothers: the aforementioned Eric, who is Tshembe’s younger brother, and Abioseh Matoseh, Tshembe’s older brother. Abioseh also went to England to be educated as a Roman Catholic priest. Tshembe is saddened to see that his brother has been totally assimilated in the European sensibility and turned his back on his African heritage and traditions He will soon take the Christian name, Father Paul Augustus, which Tshembe describes as the name of  ‘a murdering Roman Emperor.”

As the unrest escalates the rebels put pressure on Tshembe to join them. He longs to go home but is torn in his loyalties.  He sees what is happening to his country because of the hand-fisted way the ‘settlers’ (white colonists) are treating his people.

The Production. The production is beautifully directed by Yaël Farber, using traditional music, the Xhosa language in some cases, dance and symbolism.

The production begins with the thrum of music that is focused when a group of Black women in traditional garb slowly enter singing a throaty song in the Xhosa language. Adam Cork’s music/soundscape is mysterious, plaintive and seductive. The women walk clockwise around the large Olivier stage. They are followed by a larger group of people also walking slowly, wearing worn clothes. Each person holds his/her right hand in a light fist forward out of which falls a steady stream of sand. This larger group represents the Black servants and workers of the mission: Peter (Sidney Cole), Eric (Tunji Kasim), Abioseh (Gary Beadle) and finally, separate from them is Tshembe (Danny Sapani). To me the steady stream of sand is symbolic of their country slipping through their fingers.  

Walking counter-clockwise, even slower and more deliberately is a character referred to only as “The Woman” (Sheila Atim). She is commanding in her presence because she appears to be in an expressionless trance, her head is tilted down a bit and wears a costume that barely covers her.

This silent woman will slowly circle the stage for the whole of the production, always present and representative of that African country. She walks against the flow of the others going the other way… perhaps symbolic of how Africa was considered backward by the ‘settlers’. The Woman is also symbolic of the thing that haunts Tshembe– the memory of his country that he missed so much. The Woman is a presence, a thought, the idea of that place–majestic, graceful but also almost ground down in despair.   `

As these characters circle the space, the stage revolves. The make-shift wood mission comes into view—barely a skeleton of a structure (kudos to Soutra Gilmour for the evocative design). A few steps rise up to the veranda. Three white characters: Major Rice (Clive Frances), Dr. Dekoven (James Fleet) and Dr. Gotterling, (Anna Madeley) climb the steps, spread across the veranda and look ‘down’ on the Black characters in front of the house. In simple, elegant movement, song and symbolism director Yaël Farber has created the segregated, divisive world of that African country and that mission/hospital. Stunning.

Charlie Morris (Elliot Cowan), the journalist from America, arrives and is eager to begin his research for his article. He’s charming to Dr. Gotterling who greets him. There will be slight flirting between the two over the production. Charlie Morris offers Peter (Sidney Cole) one of the servants at the mission, a tip of coins for bringing his suitcase. Peter is excessively grateful, bowing, thanking etc. As Charlie, Elliot Cowan has that jaunty, confident, curious attitude of a man who is never awkward and always feels he’s doing good. He gives Peter a tip when we figure no one else would. As Peter, Sidney Cole has a skittish body language, always at the ready to rush and do the bidding of the people who employ him or the Major. Cole’s head is bowed in obsequious respect, almost never looks in the face of the person talking to him. But then when Peter segues from the servant to the resistance fighter he stands straight, looks a person in the eye and there is not one trace of wanting to please. The voice is strong and hard. You cringe and are embarrassed for him when Peter ‘bows and scrapes. And he’s compelling when he is in full height as the leader of the resistance. It’s a performance of power.

Lorraine Hansberry (and I must also credit Robert Nemeroff who adapted Hansberry’s notes in order to finish the play) had such a delicate way in creating her characters, their stories and how they faced off with other characters.

We soon realize that Madame Neilsen (a wonderful, quietly regal performance by Siân Phillips) did more to bring education and Christianity to the village and its people than her husband did. Madame Neilsen is now an old, blind woman who is waiting for her husband to come home from wherever he went on business. But we find out she befriended Tshembe’s mother, Aquah, years before and learned some of her customs and the language.  Madame in turn taught Aquah English, French and some Norwegian (the Nielsen’s are Norwegan).  Madame taught Tshembe and his brothers geometry and other lessons. She earned their respect.

When Tshembe returns home to see his dying father he also pays a visit to Madame. She is delighted to see him and wants to feel his face to ‘see’ it. When she realizes he’s cut his hair  she says, “You had such a bush!” the word and image stings to hear it in the 21st century. Tshembe laughs and explains that now he’s “a city man. Do you see my part?” He means of course that he was trying to assimilate into a European lifestyle. Lines like this make one suck air. We know that assimilating for a Black man is so fraught then and now. As Tshembe, Danny Sapani gives a beautifully paced, nuanced performance of a man who is obviously conflicted and out of place in both worlds of his African village and the European world. His anger at what is happening to both brothers and his country fills him with ever bubbling rage. And he’s conflicted. He wants to back to England to his wife and son but is compelled to stay and fight for his country’s independence from the colonizers.

While Madame attempted to learn the language and customs of Aquah, Dr. Marta Gotterling has been there seven years and does not seem to have bothered to learn any of the language. She tends to a young boy and gives instructions in English to his father slowly and deliberately as if talking to a simpleton.  That speaks volumes.

Charlie Morris fancies himself an open-minded American but he too has his arrogant blind-sides. He wants to discuss and talk to Tshembe over a cigarette and a drink about the politics of the place for his story, but Tshembe has heard it all before and is sick of talk. Tshembe is the modern man—educated in England but staunchly connected to his country’s traditions and history.  He is the perfect opponent to Morris and lets him have it with wonderful lines like this:

“What is this meaningless nonsense with you Americans for a handshake, a grin and half a glass of whiskey you want 300 years to disappear and in a few minutes….do you really believe that a rape of a continent will dissolve in cigarette smoke?” You get the sense of his frustration at trying to always having to ‘explain’ to well-meaning but thoughtless people, about his country and what it’s like being Black.

Clive Frances plays the racist bully, Major Rice without one trace of pulling a punch. The contempt he has for the Black people of that country makes one squirm. It’s that condescending attitude of how the British (or any conquering people) are overbearing and think they know how to run a place with a fist, a gun, an insult and a need to keep people under his thumb.

The conscience of the play in a sense is Dr. Dekoven, played with a quiet sense of futility by James Fleet. He knows of the subtleties of what is going on there. He drinks a lot to forget. He offers Eric whiskey for the same reason. He knows how the white colonists have taken and ruined the place and the people.

In the end a young man runs around the set holding a lit torch above his head, climbs up the steps to the mission and slams the torch on the floor and runs off. It was Eric. The place goes up in flames and all in it one assumes—the doctors and Madame. The music swells to a compelling loudness. The Woman stops walking as if in a trance and turns around on the spot, her arms raised holding something in both hands—a weapon? Knives? I could not tell. And she looks up for the first time, to the sky, as if in some kind of ceremonial gesture. It’s both unsettling and thrilling.

Yaël Farber even stylizes the curtain call. Rather than doing a full-tilt bow the cast bent their heads down and brought it back. They did not bow at all. The director was saying something here—“we will not bow down again, ever”. Woow

Comment.  In Les Blancs Lorraine Hansberry has written an astonishing, gripping, timely, beautifully unsettling play for our times. It’s about imperialism, racism and colonialism. It is in perfect keeping of the Black Lives Matter movement. I listened to the words written in the 1960s and how I’m hearing them in 2020.When the Major spits out the word “boy” to Peter it stings to hear it. I must confess I sat uncomfortably when Madame said to Tshembe, “Come in, Child.” It’s a term of endearment she probably always called him when he was a kid. Now he’s a man in his 40s but she is still that child she taught.  Today when race and language are so charged, I heard the word “Child” perhaps in a different way even though Madame didn’t mean it that way.

Interestingly we learn that the Reverend considered the people of the village as his children and he kept them subservient and beholding to him as if they were children. They were taught a little—how to turn a dial or press a button–but were basically uneducated. Tshembe’s father was the person who started the resistance, fighting for more independence and at every turn was thwarted by the Reverend.

Hansberry gives the many sides of the story, from the point of view of the well-meaning, to the wilfully ignorant, to the deliberately oppressive and those who are fed up and will not take that treatment anymore.

Her perceptions of the politics and mindset of the colonizer are razor sharp and her dialogue in getting that across is astonishing.

This is a splendid production of a blistering play that every single person should see.

It plays on National Theatre Live until July 9.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Esther Pifko July 6, 2020 at 10:05 am

Of course I am missing live theatre. However, I now have the opportunity to see other productions. Furthermore i can see it again. yes I did see this show. Now that I have read your review and insights, I can see it again and gain even more from this presentation.


2 Heather Lawrence July 6, 2020 at 10:58 am

Thank you for this illuminating review. I watched the play last night. Brilliant and powerful play, I agree with you.

Can I get your take on who was in a sexual relationship with Eric. It likely was started when he was a youth. I am quite unsettled as it seems Dr. Dekoven might have been. Yet this is confusing for me as I also felt the same way as you that he was the conscience of the play. It likely was not the Reverend as he was so enraged about Erc’s existence.
My stomach feels like a tight fist over this. I would really appreciate your views on this.