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Yaël Farber, National Theatre

Les Blancs at the National Theatre: Yaël Farber Interview

13 April 2016 Ryan Ormonde

Yaël Farber is a South African theatre director who won much acclaim for her Old Vic production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in 2014. London Calling met with Farber to discuss her new production with the National Theatre: Les Blancs by Lorainne Hansberry.

51 years ago Lorraine Hansberry, one of the most accomplished American playwrights of her day, died of cancer at the age of 34. The subject of the Nina Simone song ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’, Hansberry was a leading intellectual of the age, committed to the fight for Civil Rights and the liberation of oppressed communities. As the National Theatre return to the stage Hansberry’s late work ‘Les Blancs’, London Calling talks to its acclaimed South African director Yaël Farber.   

London Calling: How would you describe Lorraine Hansberry’s achievements as a writer and thinker?

Yaël Farber: Hansberry is an extraordinary figure who died an untimely death at the age of 34, so I don’t think we’ll ever know what she was capable of in the years that should have been ahead of her as an artist. She put into the world something that’s considered one of the great classics of American theatre, A Raisin in the Sun, but it’s my belief that Les Blancs is her most important work, and I think she herself considered it to be so. She died before she had time to complete it and so her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff brought together the various versions that she had written of the text. With the blessing of the Hansberry estate, we have worked with some of the dramaturgy to refine to a greater and greater degree what we believe she would have hoped for the work.

[Hansberry] was experimenting with form in a way that American theatre certainly wasn’t at the time. She was doing what I think any great playwright does, which is to try to bring onto the table conversations that people are not having overtly but are so longing to have politically, at a level that is needed. There’s a beautiful radicalism to the work and a deep desire to reframe the narrative of the African and African Diaspora experience, but before anything I think she’s deeply a Humanist. As a member of the Hansberry estate said to us as when we were working on the dramaturgy, she’s incapable of writing an irredeemable character.

LC: In her writings, Hansberry connects the ongoing move to independence in African countries to the struggles of the Civil Rights movement in America. Did that come into your reading of the play?

YF: Well, quite brilliantly she has set [Les Blancs] in an unnamed Colonial country, and in this way she looks very deeply at Imperialism and the entire system of Colonialism. But there is also an American character who turns up at the mission with his own – perhaps naive – set of presumptions about the conscience of the Imperialist; that it is all towards the greater good of the countries that they have occupied. In the unfolding conversations [Hansberry] brings in the question of the Middle Passage and of American slavery, and so I think she quite brilliantly brings these two threads together. That takes us all the way into the Civil Rights Movement and all the way to today: #BlackLivesMatter. It’s extraordinary that we still have to consider it something that needs to be said. I think that’s the sweep of [Hansberry’s] work; she had a very deep understanding of the fallout and the consequences both of slavery and of Imperialism, colonialism. There are some magnificent lines in Les Blancs: Tshembe saying to Charlie ‘It will take a million tomorrows to redress what has been done here’.

LC: Hansberry sets up a complex dialogue in this play. But do you see her as an optimist?

YF: I think she’s a realist. There’s absolutely no sanitising of the question. I think optimism can sometimes embody a commitment to the idea that things turn out well and to try to steer things, or at least a belief system, in that direction. As I said, she’s a Humanist; and if one can define optimism in those terms I would say that she does believe ultimately in the redeemability of the moral status of any single character. In Les Blancs, possibly the most morally reprehensible character is Major Rice, who kills a man in front of us. [Hansberry] affords him a monologue in which he explains that he has two beautiful daughters and that these are his hills. [He talks about] what he would like and need in his life. It’s a remarkably human moment – she gives him airtime! She gives him some bandwidth to actually explain his position. In this way I believe she had a very delicate but forceful commitment to the idea that we each have our point of view, but she also takes a very scathing look at the overview. This brings to mind for me Hannah Arendt’s ‘the banality of evil’ in which, if we stop thinking, we become part of the system, as opposed to people being inherently evil.

LC: The well known theatre critic Lynn Gardner wrote a review of a 2001 Manchester production of Les Blancs in which she says: ‘It is hard to imagine why anyone would want to stage this clunky, schematic play which offers debate but little drama’. Why do you think she might have characterised the play in this way?

YF: I don’t think it’s a statement that falls outside the deep concerns that I myself had for the text. And again I think this tracks a very particular history of the work. With the blessing of the Hansberry estate, we have within this very short period of time tried to address such dramaturgical questions. My great love in theatre is to approach texts, whether they are completed masterpieces like The Crucible or a piece like Les Blancs that needs further exfoliation towards illuminating what the writer intended, or creating work right from ground zero in the same amount of time, [and bringing them] to a place where they become theatre in action, so that it isn’t just long debates. I hope in the process that we’ve managed to cover some distance towards achieving this.

LC: I was looking on your website – there is a quote from you about ‘the fiery possibility to face ourselves and one another in our true and unconfined form’ – Is that your mantra as an artist in theatre?

YF: It is. That [was written] long before I directed The Crucible and I was talking very specifically about what a crucible is: it’s a specific moment when substance is transformed into another form through the crucible of heat. I have a very deep belief in the transformative capacity of theatre, not as some kind of miracle but the Greek understanding of catharsis, in which we are taken to a point through story at which we face a transformative question. Theatre is a very ancient and very ritualised act that has taken on a new form because it’s become very driven by economy. That steers us very far away from the original intention, which reaches towards some kind of higher possibility for ourselves, as does any idea of a community coming together and facing themselves, whether it’s in the mosque or the temple, or through some kind of act like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. But it’s always about facing the self.

Les Blancs is playing at the National Theatre until 2nd June 2016. To book tickets, see website.

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