Lorraine Hansberry’s ambitious play, unfinished at the time of her early death, has been polished to perfection for director Yaël Farber’s stirring production. Combining theatrical realism with a yen for Greek theatre that makes the Olivier auditorium a perfect venue, this is a political drama that goes to the dark heart of human nature.
There’s a lot going on and the play is long. A white reporter and a returning local chief’s son arrive in an unspecified African country under colonial rule and become embroiled in a struggle for independence, trapped by their sense of responsibility – one to write a truthful story, the other to fight for freedom.
This isn’t a new play, so, the arguments against colonialism and exploitation are depressingly familiar. It’s in the debates intelligent presentation that the work becomes urgent while the passionate delivery makes the production excellent. The Whites of the title are impressively nuanced: centred around a hospital, doctors (engaging performances from James Fleet and Anna Madeley) wait for the return of their missionary leader, along with his wife, a magisterial role for Siân Phillips. Their opinions leak out under the journalistic gaze of Mr. Morris. In an angry performance by Elliot Cowan how much Morris has in common with the well intentioned Westerners is clear, but there’s a suspicion more subtlety could be plumbed.
The focus is the story of Tshembe Matoseh, a reluctant rebel fighter, “ravaged” by history, superbly portrayed by Danny Sapani. His two brothers (well delineated by Tunji Kasim and Gary Beadle) provide more perspective on the complexity of colonial rule. The anger and violence that overwhelms their family is firmly controlled by Hansberry’s text. A non-speaking woman, depicted impressively by Sheila Atim, accompanies Tshembe, allegorically adding to his burden, and the his inevitable descent into a tragic, you might say biblical, crime is shocking.
With all the argument in the play – several long speeches that could easily have defeated less able actors – it is a triumph that Farber has created such a theatrical and emotive show. Aided by Xhosa singers and Soutra Gilmour’s impressive set, we get not just politics but epic drama.
Until 2 June 2016
Photo by Johan Persson