StageScan Pick: Les Blancs

Les Blancs at the National Theatre achieved a 4-star average rating from pro reviewers, with almost unanimous fours. Tim Bano (The Stage), giving it full marks, hailed the “breathtaking scope, clarity and insight” of Lorraine Hansberry’s unfinished play in a “tightly wrought version”.  Michael Billington (The Guardian) praised “a text that explores both the divided individual soul and the bitterness of the colonial legacy”. Bano enjoyed “poetry that soars” and “lines that cut to the bone” and described “precise lyricism” combined with “flights of expressionism”. Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail), acknowledging its “bleak… assessment of African history” found in Yael Farber’s “ritualistic production”, a “parable of post-colonial malaise” which “teems with semi-mythological characters”. Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) thought “some of the arguments still remain unclear” and Billington suggested the play was “a product of its time” but found “intellectual doubts… overcome by the sensuous sweep” of Farber’s “epic production”.

Bano described a “skeletal set, like the bare bones of a country ravaged” and scenes which “begin and end with threatening tableaux, lit like faded photographs” while Billington noted a “minatory hum”. Bano felt “Farber allows the play to hit resounding notes of anger and pain, but excels in minute details too” and Marmion saw the lives of indigenous Africans “vividly and harrowingly brought to life”.

From many of what Billington called “impressive performances”, all singled out Danny Sapani’s “superbly played” lead. Henry Hitchings (ES) found this “mighty performance… anchors the production” adding “At first he has a pensive dignity, but gradually his underlying anger is exposed.” Coveney felt he “provides a centrifugal force of feeling that irradiates the whole evening”.

Most also highlighted several supporting actors. Coveney enjoyed a “wonderfully dyspeptic” Clive Francis, Hitchings praised his “snarling precision” and Bano hailed a character of “chilling, unrelenting callousness” who is “still recognisably and believably human”. Among the other “fine, alert contributions” praised by Coveney (among others) were “razor-edged” Gary Beadle and “glorious” Sian Phillips. Bano was among those hailing Sheila Atim as “its most potent character” a gaunt, silent, almost naked woman who “haunts the stage”.

Bano declared the whole a “stunning piece of theatre” and Billington felt, “An imperfect play… has been given a near-perfect production”. Hitchings agreed “Farber’s skilful revival makes a powerful case for its importance” and Coveney felt “the brilliant South African director … has unleashed its tragic power”.

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