Julian Eaves reviews Anton Chekov’s Three Sisters now playing in the Lyttleton Theatre at the National Theatre London.
National Theatre (Lyttleton),
This is one of those glorious productions where a number of different energies all come together at once to create a really special experience in the theatre. Here, Anton Chekov’s perennial favourite of sibling destinies gets a welcome make-over with African styling in a relocation to post-independence Nigeria and the trauma of the Biafran War (Biafra was the name given to a section of the country that broke away from the rest of the federation, before being dragged bloodily back into the Lagos-dominated fold). Seeing these events through the filter of Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’, a novel about the conflict that was recently filmed, Nigerian playwright Inua Ellams finds myriad parallels between Chekov’s fading provincial bourgeois idlers and his cosy but ill-advised African rebels. However, even though what we see here resembles the plot of the Russian drama, the fact of national strife splitting their world apart gives these characters an epic grandeur that is missing from the original. In fact, we are often in a world more reminiscent of ‘Gone With The Wind’ than ‘Uncle Vanya’ and any ‘Cherry Orchard’s.
Indeed, this is also true in Ellams’ cheerful decision to brighten up the tone of the first half, especially, which becomes almost frivolously light-hearted, recalling a buzzy TV soap opera (like ‘Brothers and Sisters’?), or Margaret Mitchell’s spoilt southern gentry before their civilization is swept away. This is compounded in the vision vigorously and dynamically given shape by director Nadia Fall: those who remember her magisterial ‘Dara’ for this same house will relish her ability, even better here, to combine big narrative sweep with the minute examination of gender power relations, and – especially – the effects of marriage upon men and women. Here, she moves the focus steadily and unerringly between the domestic and the sovereign, giving us a philosophical interpretation of history founded upon complex and subtle inter-personal affairs.
And nowhere is this more intensely expressed than in the performances of the central characters. Sarah Niles is strong, determined, compassionate and kind as the elder daughter, Lolo, who remains unattached – except to the children she teaches in her school – and is perhaps the closest we get to an ‘authorial voice’; her talkative younger sister, Udo, is the more intense and driven Racheal Ofori and finally Natalie Simpson as the taciturn yet passionate Nne Chukwu. But, while these three dominate the talking, the more thrillingly theatrical trajectory is accomplished by Ronke Adekoluejo’s Abosede, whose brilliantly cunning exploitation of every situation enables her to rise inexorably into a position of absolute power and authority over the family. Key to her success is her understanding of how to use the men around her to get what she wants: Tobi Bamtefa’s Dimgba, the idealistic but feckless brother who propels the family into dissolution, is easily out-manoeuvred by her before she moves onto a bigger prize in the never-seen but always understood Benedict Uzoma, who buys them out, and is clearly her next target.
Threaded into this simple and yet fraught scenario is a lengthy, at times often rather Shavian discourse upon the nature of statehood, politics, money, and – always – colonialism. As in ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ seen at this theatre a few years ago, the shadow of the British looms large in Nigeria, in pursuit of plunder. Ultimately, here, as Sule Rimi’s Oyinyechukwu makes perfectly clear at the bitterly angry conclusion of the drama, those now ruling the re-pacified country insist upon perpetuating an anglo-centric educational system, in which – for example – Nigerian children must be taught that the British turn of the 19th-century explorer, Mungo Park, ‘discovered’ the source of the River Niger. This view is imposed upon Lolo, now advanced to the headteacher of the local school, to underline her weakness in the face of victorious state control, and the pain she feels at this makes her tragedy, the tragedy of this family, into the tragedy of Africa itself. No wonder the audience rose in unanimity at the end of the play, to acknowledge the strength of the message and to welcome it being given such exquisitely beautiful and memorable expression.
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