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.

The Last King of Scotland at the Sheffield Crucible review *****

The Last King of Scotland

Crucible Sheffield, 28th September 2019

The Tourist generally agrees with all those smart people paid to review theatrical productions. That is a) because they now what they are doing, they are experts with experience and should be listened to, rather than some halfwit with his/her half baked opinions on social media, and b) because, and this is a subset of a), those professional opinions will inevitably influence the ever reflexive Tourist even if he waits until after he has seen an entertainment before passing comment.

Sometimes though I just think they are wrong. With The Last King of Scotland being a case in point. To be fair it did get some decent reviews in the local and specialist theatre press but the broadsheets gave it a pasting. And I cannot, for the life of me, see why. The elements of stagecraft used to convey the story were resoundingly successful in my view and any criticism focussed on the characters, most specifically Doctor Nicholas Garrigan, is misplaced. Why the fictional good Scottish doctor ended up tending the monster Idi Amin is an enigma, not answered in Giles Foden’s book, nor in this adaptation from Steve Waters. Is it fear? Is it professional pride? Is it love? We never know and that is exactly why the story is so compelling in my view.

Now I am a big fan of both book and the film 2006 film, directed by Kevin Macdonald, who also oversaw the film of Touching the Void, taken from a very fine book which itself is the current subject of an excellent theatrical make-over courtesy of David Greig. Who in turn is responsible for another current play of a film(s) of a book in the form of Solaris at the Lyric Hammersmith. The screenplay for TLKOS was penned by Jeremy Brock and no less than Peter Morgan, whose sumptuous magnum opus The Crown you may have heard of and is just about to return to our screens complete with its new roster of A list actors. Note that the Tourist and the SO last night took in Lungs at the Old Vic starring the outgoing Queen Liz and Phil the Greek in Claire Foy and Matt Smith. It’s a small world this drama lark.

Anyway the film deservedly earned Forrest Whittaker an Oscar for his portrayal of Idi Amin Dada Oumee and plenty of praise for the lovely James McAvoy, soon due to grace the London stage in Cyrano. No less than Gillian Anderson and David Oyelowo starred alongside them, but for me the best performance came from Simon McBurney OBE who played Stone, the jaded Foreign Office flunkey who attempts to recruit Garrigan to the British cause as they switch tracks and watch on helplessly as Amin rises to power. I always assume Mr McBurney takes on these film roles to fund his day job as one of the planet’s greatest theatre makers through his company Complicite, but he is never less than compelling even in the likes of Harry Potter or Mission Impossible.

In this stage adaptation however it is hard to take your eyes off Tobi Bamtefa who plays Amin, from the coup in Uganda which overthrew the repressive regime of Milton Obote in 1971 through to his deposal in 1979 and the return of Obote and civil war. Mr Bamtefa was a member of the original Barber Shop Chronicles cast and had a small part in Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network at the NT, as well as a few TV roles, and he is set to join the cast of Inua Ellams’s Three Sisters, set in Nigeria and coming up at the NT. But this was his first major stage opportunity I believe and he grabbed it with both ample hands. The character of the imposing, capricious Amin comes with audience preconceptions, (at least those old enough or interested enough to know something of the history), but, for me, Tobi Bamtefa was utterly convincing. Impossible to take your eyes off him as he turns from briskly comic to bizarrely cruel in an instant. Which is exactly as it should be. The scenes between him and Daniel Portman’s Garrigan were electric, from the early encounter when the doctor fixes Amin’s hand all the way through to full blown bedroom meltdown at the end. Adventure, idealism, influence, fear, fascination, love are all a part of why Garrigan stays long after, morally, he should have escaped. And, like all evil tyrants, Amin exerts a powerful charisma alongside brutal, erratic power. That is the warning from history which the play delivers.

Although the two leads dominate there are strong supporting performances from Akuc Boc as Kay Amin and Joyce Omotola as his other wife Malyam, as well as John Omole as Peter Mbalu-Mukasa, Garrigan’s doctor colleague and Kay’s lover. The scene where Garrigan refuses to perform and abortion for the couple, despite knowing the consequences for them should Amin find out, is riveting. Baker Mukasa plays Jonah Wasswa, the Minister of Health and eventually just about everything else, George Eggay the Archbishop who defies Amin and Hussina Raja is, amongst other roles, Pritti, a Ugandan Asia who takes on Amin at the time of the expulsion. Peter Hamilton Dyer is Perkins the hapless ambassador, Eva-Jane Willis his inhibited wife who rebuffs Garrigan’s advances and Mark Oosterveen plays Stone, here linked to the secret services.

Last King of Scotland aficionados will see that the plot here is much closer to book than film, which latter took a few liberties with Giles Foden’s original events and characters. To be fair, with its fictional TV clips with three recurring journalists (local, UK and US) to provide historical exposition, these events do move on at a fair lick which perhaps overly accelerates Amin’s descent from national saviour into crazed murderer. This, together with Garrigan’s, deliberate, passivity, might frustrate some viewers but it worked for me. Gbolahan Obisesan’s direction, (whose adaptation of Chigozie Obioma’s novel The Fisherman is well worth seeing), doesn’t try to resolve this equivocation which makes the central message even more disturbing. It is pretty easy to think that, confronted with such atrocity, we would walk away if we could but, more often that not, the reality is we wouldn’t, instead choosing to become complicit in the horror.

There are plenty of memorable scenes visually, facilitated by Rebecca Brower colourful set and costume designs, Sally Ferguson’s lighting and Donato Wharton’s sound, even if sometimes the spacious Crucible stage swallows up the action. The film’s infamous meat hook scene is here eschewed but the horror is still effectively conveyed with a grisly scene near the end. Theatre cannot of course convey the immensity of such horror but it can, think Macbeth, Titus Andronicus or Richard III, try to get inside the mind of the man who presides over it. The Last King of Scotland doesn’t get anywhere close to this, that would be too much to ask, but as a slice of theatre, and history, with a moral message, this definitely worked.