Lorraine Hansberry’s last play, edited after her premature death, is a coruscating piece, its rage focused on colonialism in Africa. The National Theatre’s 2016 production was directed by Yaël Farber and used the full resources of the Olivier stage to transmit its full force.
An old-fashioned mission hospital in an unnamed British colony seems at first like the quaint remnants of a fast-vanishing time, with its charismatic leader The Reverend, never seen on stage, and his elderly wife Madame Neilsen, played by Siân Phillips surrounded by long-serving doctors and native servants.
When Tsehembe Matoseh (Danny Sapani) returns from his new life in London to attend his father’s funeral, it quickly becomes clear that what seems benign is evil, and that the colonial presence has destroyed all in its path.
Farber, with her designer Soutra Gilmour, creates an enthralling drama. We only ever see the mission hut on stage, but the life and, soon menace that surrounds it on all sides feels like a constant presence. People dance and sign Xhosa songs around the edge of the compound, dragging fire barrels as though pulling the earth itself around. A silent female figure (Sheila Atim) shadows Matoseh’s path.
The multiple perspectives of colonialism are delivered through a host of powerful performances: the military enforcer (Clive Francis), the naive, liberal journalist (Elliot Cowan), the deeply disillusioned doctor (James Fleet), the single-minded missionary (Anna Madeley), the seat-at-the-table local (Gary Beadle) and the troubled offspring of a forbidden union (Tunji Kasim).
The stand-out performances are from Phillips, whose unexpected connections to people and events make her harder and harder to classify, and Sapani. The latter boils over with rage at the deceit and exploitation visited on his people, and his inability to escape what others have done. Les Blancs is a remarkable play, not only for its time (the 1960s), but for how little impression Hansberry’s dismantling of colonial pretence has made on the wider story of the era. Unfortunately, the play feels just as necessary now as it was then.