Three Sisters at the National Theatre review ***

Three Sisters

National Theatre Lyttleton, 9th December 2019

Opportunity partially missed I am afraid. Inua Ellams has come up with a brilliant idea by transporting Chekhov to 1960s Nigeria, specifically during the Biafaran Civil War. Yet his urge to educate and contextualise leaves the dialogue heavy on exposition. And, in deference to the Russian master, his adaptation retains the key elements of AC’s plot, which then leads to a few incongruous shifts in the narrative.

It certainly looks the part with Katrina Lindsay’s mobile set, and especially extensive costumes, along with Peter Mumford’s lighting design, and especially Donato Wharton’s sound design, creating a real sense of time and place. The music, under the direction of Michael Henry, also contributes significantly. The cast is top drawer, with some particular favourites of mine showcasing their talents: Ronke Adekoleuejo (previously The Mountaintop, Cyprus Avenue), Tobi Bamtefa (The Last King of Scotland, Network), Ken Nwosu (An Octoroon, As You Like It, The Alchemist, and Sticks and Stones on the telly recently), Sule Rimi (American Clock, All My Sons, Glass/Kill/Bluebeard/Imp, Sweat, Measure for Measure, Love and Information, The Rolling Stone) and Natalie Simpson (Cymbeline, Hedda Tesman, Honour, The Cardinal). They, and their colleagues, definitely have their moments but in such a broad panorama, with many shifts in pace, action and tone, didn’t really get the opportunity to get under the skin of their characters.

Of course Chekhov’s original play can work in all manner of settings and, as long as translators/adaptors remain true to the tragi-comic timbre, the text can be whatever they want it to be. Inua Ellams’s sisters Onuzo, melancholic but politically aware Lolo (Sarah Niles), restless and resentful Nne Chukwu (Natalie Simpson), who was married at just 12, and initially playful, eventually broken, Udo (Rachael Ofori, who impressed), and brother Dimgba (Tobi Bamtefa), are a long way from where they were brought up, cosmopolitan Lagos, as Igbos returned to the east of the country as war breaks out. Their geographical and psychological separation, and the presence of the Biafran army, fits AC like a glove. Ronke Adekoluejo, as Dimgba’s Yoruba vulgar wife Abosede, adds a bullying edge of superiority to brash comedy, as she takes over the family home. I learnt a lot about modern Nigerian history, the baleful influence once again of the colonising Brits, the coup and counter-coup ahead of Biafra’s declaration of independence in 1967, the ethnic divisions, the war waged through bombing and blockades, the role of women in the war. And I have added Half of a Yellow Sun to my, admittedly thin, holiday reading list. But I didn’t really learn very much about the family, and the attarctions, at the heart of the drama.

Knowing the story made it pretty easy to fill in the gaps and to see how IE had weaved in the key symbols and events in the plot. The birthday party, the fire, here the result of an impressively staged airborne bomb strike, the clock, the photo, the duel. If one were new to Three Sisters I could imagine some of the interactions might have felt a little hazy amidst the spectacle but that didn’t seem to faze the enthusiastic audience at this preview performance. I see that, whilst there are tickets remaining through the rest of the run for the next three weeks (sorry, so far behind), it is been pretty successful and the crowd on our outing, was very enthusiastic, as well as, by NT standards, pretty diverse.

BTW all those dullards taking a pop at Rufus Norris’s tenure at the NT should recognise what he has done to extend the reach of the institution. I appreciate that there is still a way to go but here was a classic play, skilfully adapted by a British-Nigerian artist of immense talent, directed by one of the very best AD’s around right now, Nadia Fall at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Can’t see that would have happened under previous NT regimes. Anything that reduces the proportion of entitled, old, white duffers like me in the NT audience is a good thing.

Though I have to say that, whilst Ms Fall showed her customary energy in the set-piece scenes, and mined the comedy in text and character, even she couldn’t find a way of marrying the big picture events outside the frame and the personal, domestic drama at the core of AC’s masterpiece. Still on the plus side there was none of the sense of ennui that can pervade some productions that are too literal (or, sorry to say, too Russian). I am with those who say that Inua Ellams could have made an even better play by running even further away from the original.

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