The Fishermen at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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The Fishermen

Arcola Theatre, 20th September 2018

Good to see the Arcola downstairs space filled to bursting for Gbolahan Obiesesan’s adaptation of Chigozie Obioma’s 2015 novel, a rapid transfer after a successful run in Edinburgh and then Manchester. Pretty clear that everyone in the audience was wowed by what they saw. The story has been stripped back to just two actors, here Michael Ajao and Valentine Olukoga, who, in a triumph of shape-shifting, take on all the characters. This is set against the most pared back of designs, a sort of raised deck taijitu, separated by metal poles. It really is one of the most plainly effective sets I have seen in a long time, symbolising the symbiosis of the two brothers whose journey the play describes. Bravo Amelia Jane Hankin who I see is also designing the set for the kids’ version of Comedy of Errors in Stratford. The lighting of Amy Mae and sound of Adam McCready are equally effective.

The two brothers, Ben and Obembe Agwu, reunite to go fishing in the Omi-Ala river where they were brought up. They proceed to act out, in flashbacks, the story of a prophecy, from village misfit Abulu, that foretold the dramatic events that broke up their family. Abulu, Mum, Dad, the two fated elder brothers, Ikenna and Boja, villagers, authority figures, soldiers, all come vividly to life, even as the two men disagree about what exactly happened. There are flashes of humour, suspense and, at times, real fear. We get a sense of what matters to them, now and in the past, and of how their lives in southern Nigeria, and the history of the country, the clash between tradition and modernity, has played out in the last couple of decades. I gather Mr Obiesesan has pruned the novel somewhat, but still preserved the conceit of Igbo oral storytelling, and cleverly given voice to the memories of two, rather than just one, of the brothers. The idea of a prophecy bringing down a family and of a father whose hubris is reflected in the ambitions he has for his children, couldn’t be more Greek, but this is very far from classical tragedy though it is certainly mythic in ambition if not length (in places it is almost too quick).

Above all though what really makes this work is some extraordinary inventive theatre to bring the text to life. Director Jack McNamara delivers remarkable idea after idea and the two brilliant actors, especially in their physicality, charisma and palpable bond, are more than able to convert these ideas into thrilling drama. the re-imagined fight between the two eldest brothers was a stand-out. I see Mr McNamara is signed up to direct the adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Love Lies Bleeding at the Print Room, which I look forward to, and, on the strength of this production (which is now touring), I would snap up tickets to anything his company, New Perspectives, based in Nottingham, serves up. And I would expect to see a lot, lot more of both of this actors.

I don’t read many books. I have no choice but to read this though.

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