FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by Nadia Fall, with Set and Costumes designed by Katrina Lindsay. Lit by Patrick Mumford, with Movement Direction by Jack Murphy and music composed by Femi Temowo with Music Director Michael Henry, Igbo lyrics by Amarachi Attamah and Sound Design by Donato Wharton. Fight Directors are Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Copper-Brown. Company Voice Work by Jeanette Nelson and Victoria Woodward; Igbo Language and Culture Consultant Ngozi Nwaneri.
Chekhov – like Shakespeare but not Ibsen – invites rewrites. Bonnie Greer’s 2016 Cherry Orchard retitled Hotel Cerise was only criticised for not being bolder. Moving from the episodic Barber Shop Chronicles to something narrower yet vaster, Inua Ellams has created something masterly.
His Three Sisters not only keeps Chekhov’s title but is even more faithful to the 1901 classic. Transposed to the Biafran War in East Nigeria in 1967-70 Ellams shows how inscribing Chekhov’s meditation on stasis can be devastating: a horrifically changing war is magnified.
Here, the three sisters’ father (a general) had relocated them out of Lagos to their Igbo homeland in East Nigeria which has just declared independence as Biafra. That’s after 100,000 Igbo people were massacred in pogroms following coup and counter-coup. Being daughters of a late general bears its own consequences.
There’s little room for Chekhovian ennui though, even though it’s inlaid at the start. We start with 1967 and optimism and end two-and-a-half years later in surrender, volte-faces and desolation. Ellams redraws relationships round tensions in a war zone that advances on the supposed safe haven, from without and within.
Directed by Nadia Fall, there’s a superb set and costumes designed by Katrina Lindsay the revolve of war turns on the house exterior and interior for Act Two – a fine detailed one with upright stage right where Satie’s played – to long grasses, clothes cut for bandages, the fug of war looming.
Lit in these different conditions by Patrick Mumford, movement direction by Jack Murphy processes a continual speeding-up from the early stasis on a verandah to the sweep of burnt grasses. It’s not war but internal disputes where fight directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Copper-Brown provide a few more surprises than the original affords.
The music’s by Femi Temowo (music director Michael Henry) headlines Igbo lyrics by Amarachi Attamah who opens two acts with a processional of her own creation. Sound design by Donato Wharton features screaming jets, gunshots and one of the piano solos.
It’s the youngest sister’s birthday. Rachael Ofori’s Udo is the one who wants to return to Lagos, and her performance lights up one of the few flares of hope that isn’t dropped from a warplane.
The interval sees a sliver of the new Act Three as bombs rain down and a dying Biafran soldier’s brought in. Chekhov’s original fire scene morphs into an act of war as Nigerian planes bomb and strafe, whilst Nigerian soldiers retake part of Biafra.
Sarah Niles’ Lolo is the eldest on a mission to educate everyone – not just her charges – on how the British wrote the text books she figuratively tears up: ‘the ‘discovery’ of land the Igbo had long lived on. More, how the British who conflated Nigeria out of 250 ethnically diverse peoples by 1914, still profit from oil from both Nigeria and Biafra. How aid’s in fact long-term debt enslavement. This is diffused throughout the play; it’s not just Niles’ character reminding us what we should already know and never forget.
Natalie Simpson’s Nne Chukwu as unhappily-married middle sister starts with a notable stillness, almost interrogatory as she waits for something to start, and ends like her model Masha in a scream of loss.
It’s another point where Ellams tightens the disempowerment by having the late general arrange Nne Chukwu’s marriage – when she was twelve – to Suli Remi’s Onyinyechukwu, solemnized three years later. And Lolo late on upbraiding her boss Onyinyechukwu – who was in love with her – for not making a perfectly legitimate counter-claim. It’s a logical match: perhaps he feels outmatched though, and his final words as someone who too quickly embraces the restored Nigeria is to order her to conform. It’s redrawing these two characters with a purpose that gives Ellams’ version new powers. Remi’s character might be pompous, but she’s here a shrewd opportunist with a cruel sense of his own new powers.
Another is having brother Dimgba’s lowly wife from the Yoruba west – establishing her as unwelcome, potentially disloyal It’s more complex though. Having secured Tobi Bamtefa’s more-than-normally hapless Dimgba (a wincingly fine portrayal) Ronkę Adékoluejo’s Abosede moves with savage dispatch to appropriate the house through browbeating brother and sisters and at one point striking them, whilst all the time ascending in regality with regalia. She looks like a queen at the end, far from her despised initial waistcoat. She’s made her lover owner of the house (courtesy of Dimgba’s displacement gambling) but also supplied the food that keeps them. Again, her vicious treatment of loyal ex-nanny Nma (a superbly dignified Anni Domingo) is one moment that draws gasps.
There’s a little less room for love too. Elegant, philosophizing ‘sad soldier’ Ken Nwosu’s Ikemba catches Nne Chukwu’s eye and they’re soon embarked on a passionate affair. But he won’t leave his mentally distressed wife and children. Nwosu projects someone a little too proud of his reflections, a little too good at evading the consequences of being the first love of Nne Chukwu’s life: but with warmth enough to surrender to a final embrace.
Similarly Udo’s not in love with the decent sensitive Nmeri Ora (Peter Banolé) but we get a more urgent sense of what she finally embraces in a chance to move back to Lagos, thwarted by a very neat twist in the duel with Jonathan Ajay’s quarrelsome but not psychopathic Igwe, overseen by uncle Eze. The quarrel here though has erupted rather inorganically, and it’s the one moment you crave stronger motivation.
Jude Akuwudike’s Eze exudes accidie and resignation quite apart from his drunken spells, but ends with some purpose and nobility, prepared as a medical officer to walk into captivity.
There’s deft work too from Adedeji Adetayo’s guitarist Chidi early on, and Diane Yekenni’s tragic vengeance-seeking Oyiridiya.
What Ellams proves is not that he has to be bolder or create a wholly original play. Three Sisters grafts beautifully – and terribly – onto this harrowing template, and the original acts as guide and mark for showing how a different culture can both absorb and transform its meaning. By the end it’s not just endurance through misery but survival itself the sisters fight for. There’s a defiant accent right at the end too. This spectacular production beats with a fervour and purpose few adaptations achieve. Ellams has made it new. Outstanding.