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By Lorraine Hansberry

The National Theatre: Olivier, London SE1 Reviewed by Jarlath O’Connell


he African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry is best

known for A Raisin in the Sun, a play which, like Look Back in Anger here, simply altered the course of theater history. Tragically, she died of can- cer in 1965 at the age of just 34, and on her deathbed she was working on this play, which is arguably her masterpiece. It is a searing portrait of the colli-

sion between white imperialism and black African nationalism and here the great South African (but Cana- dian based) director Yaël Farber, who made such a splash with The Cru- cible at the Old Vic last year, makes a powerful case for its importance. Amazingly the play has only had one major production, on Broadway in 1970 starring James Earl Jones. Hans- berry’s widower and executor Rob- ert Nemiroff had to shape her drafts into a viable text for that production and now her estate, working with a dramaturg and Farber herself, have collaborated to raise this great play from the ashes. Set in an unnamed African coun-

try still under the yolk of colonialism, the plot centres on Tshembe (Danny Sapani in a towering performance) a westernised, African intellectual who returns home for his father’s funeral

62 The American

but soon gets sucked in to an armed struggle. The genius of the play is how it simultaneously presents, like some cubist sculpture, the many facets of the post-colonial struggle, all viewed through the prism of the ‘60s civil rights movement, in which Hans- berry played a part. Set 20 years ear- lier, it is remarkable how it speaks to us today. It looks at power and the root causes of political violence and in an era of terrorism scares and phe- nomena such as #blacklivesmatter it is no mere period piece. We first meet Charlie (Elliot

Cowan), an earnest American jour- nalist who arrives at the remote mis- sion hospital (similar to what Albert Schweitzer might have run) with a rose-tinted view of the missionaries and their work. In robust exchanges with Tshembe he is later reminded that “the rape of a continent cannot be erased through a chat over ciga- rettes and whisky”. Performances throughout are

top class with Clive Francis perfect as the snarling British Major. He first appears dragging the bloodied body of a native – on a leash. He explains this is “our home”, concluding that “these people have been here for centuries and done nothing with it”. Anna Madeley is the stoic, if mis- guided, young doctor and James Fleet is her older, more world-weary colleague. He could have wandered in from a Chekhov play and in a stun- ning speech he sets us right on the truth about the relationship between missionaries and locals, explaining the benign neglect, which independ- ence movements in neighboring

countries have challenged. The great Siân Phillips is Mme Neilsen, the blind wife of the Scandinavian founder. Horrified by the Major’s


she’s devoted her life to the place and the people but her kindly paternal- ism will soon be swept away. It is also a play about fathers and

sons. Neilsen himself and Tshembe’s father dominate the play as two absent figures. One the father of the mission, the other, someone who struggled his whole life to win self- determination through peaceful means, only to be rebuffed. Hans- berry is great on how revolutions are fermented only after decades of neglect and thwarted hopes. Tshembe’s conflicted loyalties are

reflected too in the different paths of his two brothers. One a Catho- lic priest who has totally embraced European values; the other, a younger mixed-race half-brother, is a troubled alcoholic rebel, who will fall sway to the insurgents. What you’ll remember of this stunning production though won’t be the politics as much as the sensu- ous sweep of Farber’s stage pictures. She is one of the greats of modern theater. Soutra Gilmour’s mission hospital rotates on a huge revolve and is itself a skeletal remains. Around it in the dusty and beautifully lit panorama (by Tim Lutkin) the locals appear and disappear. Shelia Atim’s slow-mo appearances as a spectral figure who haunts Tshembe are rivet- ing as is all of Imogen Knight’s exem- plary movement direction. It is totally theatrical yet has cin-

ematic sweep. It has both heft and poetry. 

Les Blancs


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