Director Yaël Farber is an extraordinary talent, a South African whose work combines European grandeur with boilingly passionate emotion and an almost religious sense of ritual. I never thought I’d be able to identify a director from the smell of their productions. But as soon as I walked into Farber’s revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘Les Blancs’, the wall of incense gave me vivid flashbacks to her titanic 2014 production of ‘The Crucible’.
The first ten minutes of ‘Les Blancs’ are a jaw-dropping setting-out of Farber’s stall, a overwhelming surge of sights, sounds, smells – total theatre.
The cast solemnly emerge in small groups and walk slowly through the darkened grounds of Soutra Gilmour’s skeletal wooden house: a white mission in a nameless, South Africa-like country towards the end of the colonial era. It is surrounded by sand, and beyond that, the African night, thick with haze and unfamiliar music, stalked by a quartet of magnificent South African singers and musicians, and Sheila Atim as The Woman, a silent, stylised avatar of the continent.
Is this just a white director cobbling together an approximation of the African exotic to wow a British audience? Maybe, but the tang of authenticity is there – the singers are the real deal – and ultimately Hansberry’s point, that the white missionaries are interlopers in a place they will never understand, is very well made.
It’s not all about the director. A great African-American talent who died tragically young, Hansberry’s chief legacy is the classic play ‘A Raisin in the Sun’, with ‘Les Blancs’ never actually performed in her lifetime.
It’s a powerful but slightly flawed work, two-thirds brilliant Chekhovian drama about deluded white settlers in the last days of the colonial era, to one-third ‘Hamlet’-esque morality fable about (what one might call) the radicalisation of brooding black intellectual Tshembe, superbly played by Danny Sapani.
It should, perhaps, have either been Chekhov or ‘Hamlet’. Both together make for a slight lack of focus, with too many minor characters, some pretty thin. Still, it’s finely acted, with standouts besides Sapani including Anna Madeley’s well-meaning but completely blinkered white Dr Marta Gotterling; James Fleet, as her wise, weary colleague Willy who finally explains the truth about the relationship between missionaries and locals in a stunning late speech; and Atim, ineffably haunting as The Woman.
The play is good; the production is better, going beyond words to evoke the sense of a timeless, indelible Africa that European artifice can’t hope to erase.