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.

Our Lady of Kibeho at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review *****

Our Lady of Kibeho

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 31st October 2019

Old Billers, now set to enjoy retirement as he steps down from his job as chief critic at the Guardian, knows a thing or two about theatre. So, when he identified, with his colleagues, OLOK as one of the best original plays of the C21, it reinforced the need to see it. There are plenty of other crackers on the list. I would concur with the likes of The York Realist, Escaped Alone, King Charles III, The Ferryman, Enron, The Watsons, Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads, Caroline, or Change, One Man Two Guvnors and the Lieutenant of Inishmore, some of Billers’ other choices, but would be tempted to add Oil, Hangmen, John, Sweat, Love and Information and A Number to the list.

Anyway I missed OLOK at the Royal and Derngate so was very pleased to see it pop up in Stratford and, correctly as it turned out, ventured that this would be something which would pique the SO’s interest. For OLOK is an extraordinary story based on “real” events. Kibeho is a small village in SW Rwanda, home to a Catholic convent secondary school where, in the early 1980s, apparitions of the Virgin Mary appeared to three of the students, Alphonsine Mumureke, Anathalie Mukamazimpaka and Marie Claire Mukangango. The Virgin specifically warned in August 1982 of a Rwanda descending into hated and violence, seen as a premonition of the war and 1994 Genocide, though tensions between Hutu and Tutsi were already escalating. The school itself was destroyed in 1995 with the girls involved, (there were other claimed visionaries), themselves fleeing or dying at the hands of the Hutu militia.

In 1988 the local bishop, Augustin Misago, who was subsequently accused and acquitted of involvement in the Genocide, approved devotion at the site and the Catholic Church eventually sanctified the visionaries. Kihebo is now a place of pilgrimage. Katori Hall’s play, which was first produced in New York in 2014, pretty much cleaves to the story, with this much dramatic material to work with why wouldn’t you, and works not just because it examines the horror of what happened in Rwanda in those dark years, but also the nature of faith and the workings of the Catholic Church. And it does this not with clunky exposition, exaggerated dialogue or blundering censure, but with compassion and through concentrating on these very human characters.

Against the backdrop of Jonathan Fensom’s straightforward but effective set, a room in the hermetic convent, paint faded on the mud and plaster walls, we meet the three girls at the centre of the visitation, played by Taz Munya, Liyah Summers and Pepter Lunkuse, as well as their classmates, actors Aretha Ayeh, Michaela Blackburn, Perola Congo and Rima Nsubuga. The girls display the usual cliquey rivalries exacerbated by Hutu/Tutsi division. All of these young actors convinced, helped by voice and dialect coach Hazel Holder, though Taz Munya as Alphonsine, the naive newcomer and “first” of the visionaries, and Pepter Lunkase, as Marie-Claire, the bullying leader of the Hutu girls who initially mocks Alphonsine, before herself succumbing to the full on Marian experience. Movement director Diane Alison-Mitchell, as well as magic and aerial consultants, John Bulleid and Vicki Amedume when it comes to the end of act I coup de theatre, deserves immense credit for making the ecstatic visitations very real, even a little bit disturbing, though of course I wouldn’t actually know what it is to be called upon by VM.

The tolerant Father Tuyisheme, (a fine performance from Ery Nzaramba), a Tutsi whose wife has already been murdered, initially is the only one who believes the girls who fawn over him, but gradually the evidence of their own eyes persuades the domineering and envious Hutu Sister Evangelique (Michelle Asante), the lofty bishop Gahamanyi (Leo Wringer) and, when he is sent from the Vatican to asses the evidence, the sceptical Father Flavia (Michael Mears). Though their reasons for back-pedalling are not always pure and holy as the hierarchy sees the potential financial benefits of having a pilgrimage site in the middle of Africa, and even the increasingly uncomfortable good Father Tuyisheme plays along with the Church’s testing conditions. The credibility of what the visionaries claimed to see only became clear in retrospect of course, recognised “officially” in 2001, and the rebuilt church in Kibeho now is a magnet for tens of thousands visitors from across the Catholic world. (Anathalie Mukamazimpaka now lives on the site: Marie Claire Mukangang was murdered there).

Now, if, like the Tourist, you think all this visitation and Virgin Mary cult stuff is all nonsense, don’t worry, it won’t stop you enjoying the play. I haven’t seen Katori Hall’s previous feted play, The Mountaintop, set the day before Martin Luther King’s assassination, but she entrusted its direction at the Theatre 503 where it first appeared in the UK, to James Dacre, now the AD at the Royal and Derngate, and she has done the same here. I can see why. There are, of course, obvious parallels with classic plays such as The Crucible and Saint John (and, if you will forgive the re-location, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined), but this is very much an original. The value of faith against such a harrowing backdrop is questioned, as are the motives for the acceptance of the miraculous, but always in a modest and equivocal way, which Mr Dacre is attuned to, as is Charles Balfour’s lighting, Claire Windsor’s sound and Orlando’s Gough’s composition.

A thought-provoking subject and production, full of fine detail, that never loses sight of plot or character. And by occupying a time, before, and a place, apart, from the war to come Ms Hall succeeds in amplifying her message. It is no surprise then that MB rated it so highly and that we concurred. Whilst I can’t pretend that Tina the Musical, for which Katori Hall wrote the book, is on my list of must sees, I confessed to being intrigued by the premise of the TV show she has created, P-Valley, (though, as usual, I will rely on LD and BD to explain how and where to access it), and will keep a weather eye out for any new or revived theatre work from her.

Barber Shop Chronicles at the Oxford Playhouse review *****

Barber Shop Chronicles

Oxford Playhouse, 10th October 2019

My regular reader is likely on the verge of giving up on the grounds that otiose attitude, (a sign of which is that I am running out of synonyms for lazy in these preamble apologies), means most of these comments take so long to appear on the page that the associated entertainment has invariably come on and gone.

But even by the Tourist’s shocking standards this takes some beating. Barber Shop Chronicles, which catapulted the careers of writer Inua Ellams and director, Bijan Sheibani, first appeared at the NT in 2017. Since then it has embarked on two national tours and returned to the South Bank. In this tour it will finally visit Leeds Playhouse before crossing the pond for a week at Brooklyn Academy of Music. New Yorkers, do not miss it.

So you can see it took the Tourist an inordinately long time to get round to seeing it, having initially assumed that it wasn’t for him, what with all that modern dance music, then that it wasn’t convenient and then having got slightly antsy at all the people telling him he must see it. Finally, and somewhat shamefacedly, he snuck off to Oxford to take a peek at the ever delightful Playhouse. Where fortunately a bunch of students were lapping up the on stage pre-show that frames the play sparing us boomers from any embarrassment.

I don’t need to add to the reviews and word of mouth approval. This is as good as they say it is. Inventive, exciting, uplifting. All true. But what most impressed me was the ability of Inua Ellams to shine a light on what it means to be a “strong, black man”, a father, a son, a friend, a colleague, in Africa today. And he does this without apology or faint-heartedness. There isn’t really a plot as such, we switch between 6 barber shops/shacks in Africa and in London on the day in April 2012 when Chelsea take on, and beat, Barcelona in the Champions League semi. However, as the men talk football, politics, language, race, disapora, relationships, fatherhood, in argument, confession and in jest (they all share the same, tired, joke), the stories mesh together to reveal their shared hopes, fears and frustration. Actually when I say there isn’t a plot, that isn’t quite true as in London we learn the truth about Samuel’s (Mohammed Mansaray) father and his father’s friend Emmanuel (Anthony Ofoegbu), which turns into an epiphany for this angry young man. These two share their shop with the nonchalant Jamaican Winston (Micah Balfour), generally bemused by the Afrocan customers, and help support the acting dreams of new customer Ethan (Elmi Rashid Elmi).

Music and dance punctuate the rapid scene changes as chairs, tables, towels and razors are shifted into place, courtesy of Aline David’ s sublime choreography, across Rae Smith’s rough and ready set, spinning globe and posters signing location. Peckham, Lagos, Harare, Kampala, Johannesburg, Accra, may differ in terms of accent and fashion, (there are some very sharp threads on show), but these men share their masculinity, and, it is true, their misogyny, though generally in a humorous, not ugly, way. The 12 strong touring cast, (Okorie Chukwu, Maynard Eziashi, Adee Dee Haastrup, Emmanuel Ighodaro, Demmy Lapido, Tom Moutchi, Eric Shango, David Webber, in addition to the four above), effortlessly shift between the various characters, moving from cocky to compassionate in the blink of an eye. Maybe, at times, it might have been interesting to linger longer in each of the locations, though we do get to reflect on unsettling political truths in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Uganda, but, on balance, I can see why Inua Ellams, who spent six weeks interviewing and observing in Africa, whittling down 60 hours of recording to just two, wanted to cram so much of this vibrant dialogue in. After all his day job is a poet. Though with The Half God of Rainfall at the Kiln and his forthcoming take on Three Sisters back at the National it is his stage work which is in the ascendant.

Exhilarating, joyful thoughtful theatre. Ordinary lives rendered extraordinary. A must see. And a reminder to me that a) I am quite dull and b) that I am too awkward for anything but 10 minutes and a couple of grunted pleasantries in the Turkish barbers down the road. Never mind.

PS I also have learnt what a WHAM supervisor, here Andrew Whiteoak. Wigs, Hair and Make-up. Obviously pretty important in BSC And not, unsurprisingly, the DJ at Club Tropicana.