Theatre: A conflict of duties in colonial Africa

Danny Sapani as Tshembe Matoseh

Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin in the Sun and the first black and the youngest American to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, was only 34 when she died in 1965. She did not live long enough to finish Les Blancs and her former husband, Robert Nemiroff, had to complete it with the aid of her draft copies.

The National Theatre has gone back to the original drafts and notebooks in an attempt to give the text more focus and to make the didactic dramatic. Yaël Farber’s absorbing production, designed by Soutra Gilmour, has an epic sweep and pace.

Les Blancs is set in an unnamed African colony. An extremely tall and emaciated woman stalks the Olivier stage, a silent yet potent symbol for Africa under colonial rule. African-born Tshembe Matoseh (Danny Sapani) went to Europe as a young man, married a European and fathered a child. He returns home for his father’s funeral and gets caught up in an uprising.

Where does Tshembe’s duty lie? Is it to the mission hospital and to the Brits who run it and who educated him? Or is it to the violent insurgents who want to burn it down and kill the Brits?

Danny Sapani’s strong performance is backed up by a fine ensemble which includes Gary Beadle as his brother, a converted Christian willing to kowtow to British rule; Clive Francis as a vile British major, who thinks of the colony as his country by right; and Anna Madeley as a hard-working, decent missionary who wants to preserve the status quo.

The National Theatre is also staging The Suicide, a 20th-century Russian classic. Infuriatingly, it is not Nikolai Erdman’s political satire, which was banned by Stalin, but a dud rewrite and update with poor casting and a messy production. Why not perform the original play, which involved real danger and made such an impact that Erdman ended up in Siberia?

Leo Butler says that what he is trying to do in Boy is dramatise the life of somebody who does nothing, day after day. Seventeen-year-old Liam, not very bright, just out of school, no job, no friends, no visible parents and no money, wanders the London streets. The most dramatic thing that happens is that he is very nearly arrested for travelling on the Underground without paying.

Director Sacha Wares and designer Miriam Buether, faced with making nothing happening dramatically interesting, use a serpentine travelator. It’s like being in a sushi restaurant, but instead of dishes of food, it’s people and props which constantly slide past the audience. The stage management is kept extremely busy and the travelator completely upstages the actors and the play.

Liam finally goes to a Jobcentre. Asked to imagine where he will be in five years, he has no answer. This is the social problem Butler wants the audience to address. But what the audience is actually preoccupied with, when they come out of the Almeida Theatre, is knowing how the actors are physically able to hold seated positions for long periods of time when there are no visible chairs or stools to support them.