Lorraine Hansberry’s last play – it was put into shape by her husband Robert Nemiroff after her death -was well received when it opened at the National four years ago in this production directed by Yael Farber. Today the story of an African colony on the brink of rebellion is even more disturbing and makes audiences think all the more about the white man’s burden, the relationship with the motherland and empire, and just what we gave the African while we took and took and sent out sons and daughters out to enjoy life styles they could not have enjoyed back home while bestowing the benefits of parliamentary democracy, law and order.
Charlie Morris, an American journalist (Elliot Cowan) has arrived at a remote mission up country run by a revered Doctor Neilsen, who we never see but is clearly not a million miles removed from the sainted Albert Schweitzer. He is writing a book about him and his mission, but nothing is quite what it seems. At the same time the educated and travelled Tshembe (Danny Sapani) has returned to attend his father’s funeral. He lives in England, has a white wife and a child, has been involved in diplomatic missions to the mother land about the needs of the Africans and is utterly disillusioned about how these forays are received. Promises are made, reports published, sent back to the colony and nothing happens. But rebellion is in the air, Africans have retreated to the bush, the local police chief is intent on putting it down and the dissidents want Tshembe to join them. The arguments that follow between Tshembe, his brother, who is now a Catholic priest, the family friend who is Dr Neilsen’s houseman and leader of the rebels and with Morris as he tries to assemble the material for his book, one of those well intentioned white liberal efforts, hold one’s attention throughout.
The performances are impeccable, with Sian Phillips hugely effect as the impassive Madame Neilsen, the matriarch of the mission who refuses to have anything to do with Morris.
There is a stunning set by Soutra Gilmour and the large company is used brilliantly to suggest the chaos that is happening just out of sight – we see little of the violence that is taking place – as is the Olivier revolve.
It is not a comfortable evening for anyone brought up on the tales of Motherland and Empire – when they took control some of the Africans turned out to have been fine freedom fighters but peacetime dictators every bit as exploitative as those white men they kicked out, but that is not the point. It is that the white man has a lot to regret and a lot to make amends for which resonate all the more powerfully in the time when black lives matter.
The production was reviewed by Carole Woddis when it opened so see her review, with which I agree, for the full production details.
Phpotograph: Tristram Kenton.