What is it with long and late finishing plays these days?
Review: Jack O'Connell - black boxers and potting the black in The Nap, Sheffield Crucible

Review: Identity and justice in the powerful Les Blancs, National Theatre

Les_Blancs_1024x5763It is the last days of colonial rule in an unidentified African country. Three hundred years of oppression have led to this. Unrest and violence grows, politics and negotiation are failing: the colonial overlords are determined to hang on. 

Set on a remote, dilapidated mission hospital, a returnee and a visitor step into the growing storm. Tshembe (Danny Sapani) has a new life in England with a European wife and son but has returned to where he grew up for his father's funeral. He's travelled, seen the world and is torn between his African roots, setting his country free from the injustice of colonialism and his new life in the West.

American journalist Charlie Morris (Elliot Cowen) is visiting the mission hospital in order to interview the Reverend who has run it for 40 years. He too sees the injustice of colonial rule, thinks he understands it and thinks he can help. He thinks he is right but this is a play full of people that think they are right and that their actions are justified.

Lorraine Hansberry has filled Les Blancs with interesting characters, each with their own arc which she then expertly weaves into something that becomes much, much bigger and more powerful. Among Tshembe's family is his brother Abioseh (Gary Beadle) who's training to become a priest and is a pacifist who sees merit in what the whites have done to the country. There is Eric (Tunji Kasim)) Tshembe's mixed-race, half-brother who feels the pull of two conflicting cultures and his uncle Peter (Sidney Cole) the seemingly docile and submissive mission servant.

Among the whites there is Madame Neilson (Sian Phillips) the blind wife of the Reverend who's integrated herself with the local villagers and feels the growing separation of the two peoples, Dr Marta Goetterling (Anna Madeley) who appears to be self-sacrificing and devoted and Dr Willy DeKoven (James Fleet) who passively sees straight through the rationale for colonialism and quietly despises himself for it.

The stage is haunted by The Woman (Sheila Atim), an ever present figure that very slowly stalks and labours, or just stands often in the background. She's a symbol, a sort of mother Africa, a conscious of purpose, a totem and her silence is powerful. Four singer/musicians also take a place on the stage adding a stirring and evocative sound track that fuels the tension.

Les Blancs is a play of meaty exchanges where opinions and views are properly aired and challenged and with performances that make them utterly gripping to watch. Towards the end it occasionally felt like Hansberry was determined to give her characters their moment in a spotlight with some chunky speeches but it is a minor criticism in what is a play that is satisfyingly dense and challenging without losing any of the drama and tension. It is a gripping three hours (including interval).

It is in rep at the National Theatre's Olivier stage until June 2 and I'm giving it five stars.