THE TWILIGHT OF COLONIAL AFRICA
Rufus Norris’ embrace of tough black American history theatre continues: an Olivier met MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM by the great August Wilson – who we don’t see enough, though his FENCES was a West End hit with Lenny Henry. I didn’t review Ma Rainey here because I caught it late for family reasons, and there were enough other reviews out there; but for the record I cheered for its Olivier. Not just for Sharon D.Clarke but for the bandsmen, especially Msamati and Giles Terera, whose banter and ultimate disastrous hostility bubble through the play, in the bandroom under the studio. It offers one of Wilson’s starkest, subtlest illustrations of how oppression drives a culture culture to war with itself .
This play is not about the American backwash from the slave era, but a shattering, important take on Colonial Africa, an unnamed country on the edge of revolution and independence. It is by Lorraine Hansberry (better known for A Raisin In The Sun) who died before it was finished; on the page I suspect would be weaker, though God knows the points it makes are valuable. Norris’ coup is to get director Yael Farber, whose remarkable Crucible shattered us at the Old Vic last year. The result of this staging, working again with Soutra Gilmour’s design of a skeletal mission-house and a starry sky, is spectacular: dark and moody, physically intense, spectacular and haunting: from the opening moments it creates sense of Africa’s vast ancient mystery, under fragile control of a nervy European power . A chorus of turbaned women croon Xhosa harmonies: a single, silent, thin black woman circles the stage, at one point dramatically closing in on the most conflicted character, mounting his back, a burden of ancestry he cannot deny.
For Tshembe (Danny Sapani) has come home to the environs of the mission after travels in Europe and a first-world marriage and family, to attend the funeral rites of his father, a tribal head. His brother Abioseh (Gary Beadle) is a Catholic priest, idealistic and intense but by his calling on the white men’s side while offstage “the terror” is growing, and white families murdered in their beds. As Tshembe grows more wedded to the cause they quarrel. A third brother Erik is half-caste, a very symbol of the division.
Two patriarchs, unseen, overshadow the men: The Reverend missioner, whose old blind wife – played with sibylline elegance by Sian Phillips, who holds some of the play’s strangeness; and old Abioseh, Tshembe’s father. The mission doctors – xxxx and xxxx x- fall into conversation with an American journalist, Charlie (xxxx) whose simplistic first-world naivete is challenged not only by shocking events but by the declamatory, fascinating alternative visions offered by Tshembe – reminding him how long black Africa begged politely for freedom before turning violent – and by Major Rice, the brutal colonial enforcer who has a remarkable, recognizable (very Rhodesian) speech about his own position “I”m not a racist. I’m devoted to the blacks that work for me and who I help to civilize..I”m not by temperament a harsh man, this is our home, we made the country into something, these are our hills..”
This speech follows a horrifying shock moment. It is one of the most remarkable theatrical moments of the year. And so, in a quieter way, is Sian Phillips’ delivery Madame’s last reflection on her life and impending death in the Mission house.
And if I may be personal for a moment, I should say that the look, the incense smell, the darkness and mystery and desperate half-unspoken unease of this play took me back to my ‘60s teens in South Africa – which took far too long to explode, and did it with far less terror – and Swaziland. To the absurdity of white colonialism, the patience and anger of black Africa, the terrible but routine calculations in which one white death was worse than a hundred black ones. It felt like a lucid dream. Remarkable.
Box office 020 7452 3000 to 2 June