Les Blancs, National Theatre, review: ‘Nothing should stop you seeing this play’

Les Blancs. Credit: Johan Persson/

Les Blancs. Credit: Johan Persson/ - Credit: Archant

American playwright Lorraine Hansberry died in 1965 aged only 34.

On the evidence of this play, we lost one of the 20th century’s great playwrights. Her understanding of race politics was as profound and passionate as of theatre as a craft.

The opening is pure spectacle. Staged in the brutalist Olivier Theatre, there is a skeletal mission building in an unnamed African colony.

Four matriarchs shuffle on, singing dirges: the chorus to the three thrilling hours ahead.

We meet American journalist Charlie Morris, who has come to write about humanitarian work, and Tshembe Matoseh, who returns after a spell in Europe and the States to bury his father.

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Then there’s repulsive colonial officer Major Rice who, relishing his imperialist “burden”, professes to love the simple savages. But his sidearm is ever cocked in this unsettled colony.

Tshembe and Morris debate imperialism and nationalism, black and white relations, and Morris’s white liberal attitudes: “You come for your salvation at Africa’s expense,” says Tshembe.

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And so it goes: religion, education, kinship, violence – all come under Hansberry’s forensic examination. Drew Lichtenberg writes of Hansberry: “She sought to create an African Classicism in which a burgeoning political consciousness was accompanied by aesthetic breakthrough.”

I believe she succeeded.

Apart from the over-arching political themes, she also deals with family, responsibility, divided loyalties, belonging, and self-doubt, all with precision and economy.

Yael Farber’s suberb direction and staging are an epic achievement, jaw dropping in its ambition and execution.

The acting is inspired. Sian Phillips, measured as the blind Madame Neilsen, has some of the best lines. Danny Sapani as Tshembe has great presence and passion.

Nothing should stop you seeing this play.

Les Blancs at the National Theatre.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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