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Three Sisters by Inua Ellams at Lyttelton Theatre | Review

The cast of Three Sisters, photo by The Other Richard.
The cast of Three Sisters, photo by The Other Richard.

Blistering and apt, Inua Ellams’ re-telling of Chekhov’s 1901 drama finds renewed resonance in its Biafran War setting as well as summons the demons of colonialism, neo-colonialism and tribalism that dwell in today’s national discourse. The net effect is simultaneously energising, hypnotising and haunting as the contemporary parallels with both theatrical eras painfully reveal themselves like a terrifying and astute golem.

With very little departure from the original Chekhovian opening, Ellams introduces the three sisters: Lolo (Sarah Niles), Nne Chukwu (Natalie Simpson) and Udo (Racheal Ofori) consigned to the provinces (Owerri in Igboland) from the cosmopolitan capital (Lagos) which, in this version, is due to their military commander father’s death. Co-occupying an impressive country home built by the late patriarch, they gather to celebrate Udo’s birthday with other family members, including their academic brother, Dimgna (Tobi Bamtefa), and philosophically-minded soldiers to contemplate and quip about lofty, romantic and familial matters at leisure.

However, unlike the Russian classic, the sisters are not in a military garrison backwater that falls victim to a fire but are in the Igbo homeland of Biafra that, fewer than six years after independence from British colonial rule in 1960, wants to secede from the nation that was assembled by its British colonisers (who constructed a country called ‘Nigeria’) and form a sovereign state of Biafra. Whilst much of the set-up maps to Chekhov’s plot, this play’s very time and place urgently foreshadows how the men’s declarations of easy triumph and glory will, of course, turn out to have been tragically quixotic. Much is often said of the importance of the Three Sisters’ off-stage characters. In Ellams’ play, the villainous divide-and-rule tactics of the British ruling class are as much a presence as the cuckolding government official or the daughters and melancholic wife of the charismatic military officer for whom the middle sister falls.

It is not necessary to be familiar with the original Chekhov text nor the history of Nigeria to be moved and mesmerised by this production. The script has allowed for enough exposition to orient audience members without prerequisite history; but if you have even a passing familiarity with the British establishment’s role in these war crimes and genocide fewer than 55 years ago, the drama is perhaps all the more lacerating. Indeed, its National Theatre premiere 48 hours before a general election, in which the current Prime Minister is a candidate who uses dehumanising language to classify and divide swathes of his fellow country-people, will likely further activate your sense of outrage if it already dwells within you. However, Ellams work is more poetry than politics and he artfully tells the family-as-society story at its centre with help from an outstanding creative team who create compelling moods using costumes, music and lighting from the get-go and with staunch and charismatic performances from the women and men of the company. However, as strong as most of the theatrical imagery is – with burning flags, ancestral spirits and a nod to the role of flash photography-as-historical-artefact of the Russian text – in the second act, the symbolist instincts somewhat overshadow the story-telling that is so strong before the interval.

In some ways it might be preferable not to know the Three Sisters of 1901, but if you do, rest assured there is enough variation – together with an excellent cast and strong direction from Nadia Fall – to offer a sense of surprise when needed. However, should you have the Prozorova-centred version committed to memory – seeing as we all know how the Biafran war turned out – your detailed knowledge of the Chekhov script will only add to the sense of foreboding in this production. Watching characters once preoccupied with courtship and professional ambition reduced in every aspect for physical and psychic survival unfold is fascinatingly tragic precisely because of our awareness. So too is waiting for how the necessary dramatic conflicts will reveal themselves, because surely they must. Like Chekhov, Ellams has scripted some laugh-out-loud lines and has not ignored the dramatic intensity of romantic entanglements, sibling rivalry or promise unfulfilled. Also like Chekhov, but with a contemporary and acidic urgency, he has illustrated the personal destruction wrought by misguided social systems and political conflict born of greed, anger and foolishness.

Ratcheting up the tension even further, Ellams adds the dimension of tribal conflict and direct dehumanisation (essential for a domestic drama set against the backdrop of genocide). The mocked ‘outsider’ character of the brother’s wife is made all the more potent by characterising her as a Yoruba woman, Abosede (Ronke Adekoluejo) marrying into the genteel Igbo family. With her initially scant English language (rates of English literacy and advanced education were historically higher amongst the Igbo: a reason the ethnic group was seen as ‘uppity’ and threatening to the British), we witness her first described as an ‘animal’, in flattering and desirous tones, by her betrothed and later vituperatively as a ‘bush animal’ by her sister-in-law. Of course Abosede transforms to gain control over those who underestimated her. Adekoluejo plays the role with guts and nuance. We are in tricky terrain here: to show orthodox fidelity to Chekhov’s script risks conveying some questionable stereotypes about the ‘Eve’ archetype of the manipulative woman.

On the other hand, the drama must revolve around sympathetic but occasionally frivolous characters depriving another person of her dignity and paying dearly for it. Thanks to the world so effectively built by Nadia Fall’s direction, this tightrope is walked successfully. Indeed, Ellams has subtly peppered the play with all manner of observations on masculinity that find footing in the original Chekhov story. However, there are other moments were he gets a little stuck in the transposing and we wonder if he should have parked the Russian dramatist for a scene or two and just written freely for us.

The second act is powerful but doesn’t have the velocity and impetus we enjoy before the interval. It seems the requisite fidelity to Chekhov’s text actually causes a bit of a rushed muddle towards denouement. Likewise, the Katrina Lindsay’s set design – which is exultant and specific (but not always literal) in setting the scene in the first act – seems to struggle with a bit too much imagistic gimmick in the later half. The suspended foliage, reminiscent of the jungle and countryside that serves so well as a scrim of illusion and disillusion in the pre-first-act tableau, starts to become a bit of a messy beaded curtain that needs to be brushed away for a good portion of the latter half.

Nowadays if a play is to have an interval, it usually only has one. Of course, the original Chekhov play was written in three acts and this play is more-or-less the same but without the same sense of demarcation. The play is naturally structured into thirds but here (according to modern convention) is artificially cut in the middle and, rather than shortening the second act, the third act feels unnecessarily prolonged such that it matches the first two acts. Structurally and dramatically, the second act feels a little forced; as if the dramatic exposé of the personal price of a post-colonial war that felt so fresh and complementary to Chekhov’s 119 year old text, is now at odds with the script’s bone structure. But that unease is really a reflection of how entirely and brilliantly layered this century-too-late yet evergreen conversation between Antonin Chekhov and and Inua Ellams is. Fundamentally this play is brilliant and important and could well keep you up all night with awe and rage in equal measures.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

Owerri, 1967, on the brink of the Biafran Civil War.
Lolo, Nne Chukwu and Udo are grieving the loss of their father. Months before, two ruthless military coups plunged the country into chaos. Fuelled by foreign intervention, the conflict encroaches on their provincial village and the sisters long to return to their former home, Lagos.

Following his smash-hit Barber Shop Chronicles, Inua Ellams returns to the National Theatre with this heart-breaking retelling, directed by Nadia Fall (Home, Dara).

The three sisters are played by Sarah Niles, Natalie Simpson and Racheal Ofori. Cast includes Ronke Adekoluejo, Jonathan Ajayi, Jude Akuwudike, Tobi Bamtefa, Peter Bankolé, Anni Domingo, Lola May, Jerome Ngonadi, Ken Nwosu, Joseph Ogeleka, Nasa Ohalete, Offue Okegbe, Chloe Okora, Sule Rimi and Diana Yekinni. With set and costume design by Katrina Lindsay, lighting design by Peter Mumford, composition by Femi Temowo, sound design by Donato Wharton and music direction and vocal arrangements by Michael Henry.

Three Sisters
Lyttelton Theatre
https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

Author

  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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