As you walk into the Lyttelton theatre for Les Blancs, you’re hit by a wall of incense so thick it stings your eyes. It's the first indication that this is a play that refuses to remain anchored to its dusty, sun-baked set, bleeding subtly off the stage, playing on your imagined version of Africa and setting it against the harsh reality.
Director Yaël Farber’s production is adapted from notes left by African American playwright Lorraine Hansberry – most famous for her seminal work A Raisin in the Sun – after her death in 1965. It starts with the return of two brothers to their home village in an unidentified African nation following the death of their father. One, Tshembe, long ago relocated to Europe, where he has a white wife and a child, but whose feelings of nationalistic resentment still smoulder. The second, Abioseh, is now a priest, rejecting his roots and becoming, in the eyes of Tshembe, a stooge to the imperialists.
The narrative intertwines with a white-run hospital, where there are more archetypes: a liberal American journalist inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes; a racist army major who feels he’s defending his own; an kind, elderly white woman who loves the locals as if they were her children but whose very presence is part of the problem. Everyone believes they are doing the right thing – and yet, and yet, and yet.
These archetypes set the stage, but Les Blancs is given life by its sharp, textured dialogue and exemplary delivery. It’s angry, but not driven solely by anger. For every moment of violence, there is one of touching humour. Danny Sapani’s Tshembe, in particular, is outstanding, bringing both fire and warmth to this man at the centre of an emotional maelstrom.
Between scenes a striking, impossibly tall woman stalks the stage. She seems to represent an idealised Africa; an example of its strength but sometimes a literal weight on the back of its people. As the play progresses, her stature goes from proud to bowed. It’s a poignant illustration of how, over generations, Africa has been worn down and broken.