Les Blancs had a troubled birth. In 1965 several unfinished drafts of the play were entrusted by its dying author, Lorraine Hansberry, to her ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff, who mounted a debut production in New York in 1970. Nemiroff has created a fresh version with the help of a ‘dramaturg’ (or ‘colleague’, in English) named Drew Lichtenberg who believes not only that this ramshackle script is a masterpiece but also that Hansberry belongs in the first rank of dramatists alongside Ibsen, Sophocles and Aeschylus. This does not bode well. But the result is surprisingly good. Or good-ish.
The setting is a nameless African colony populated by do-gooding Europeans, angry freedom fighters and a thuggish soldiery overseen by a British army major who happens to be a psychopathic racist. The atmosphere of the tropics is conjured brilliantly and Soutra Gilmour’s lavish designs are a true feast for the eye. There’s music, too, from white-gowned matriarchs who warble native choruses and pluck away at crude, hand-made instruments. Stock-still peasants watch the action with pots on their heads. Just occasionally I felt I was watching an arts-and-crafts display at the Commonwealth Institute but the show earns good marks for making the Olivier’s space work well.
The play sets out to demonstrate that Africa’s greatest natural asset is self-delusion. Westerners arrive there in search of self-fulfilment and dress it up as altruism. We meet a photojournalist, Morris, who wants to capture quaint images of docile savagery and who invites an African intellectual, Tshembe, for a chinwag over some whisky. Tshembe coolly points out that three centuries of exploitation can’t be eliminated in a cloud of liquor fumes. This is powerfully done. But there are distortions too. The scene where the mad major (Clive Francis) executes an African servant while the Europeans look on inertly seems improbable and highly manipulative.