Inua Ellams’ version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Lyttleton Theatre at the National, reimagined into the setting of the Biafran war, just catapulted into my top ten of theatre experiences. All round – the acting, the direction, the staging, the music and certainly the script were outstanding.
The whole company’s performances were so good it is hard to single out individuals. All three sisters in particular were fully defined characters with specific personalities whose acting drew you into their world. Of course, because her Mother, Charity, is a friend I am going to mention Natalie Simpson as the middle daughter Nne Chukwu. However, her dissatisfaction at her life in Owerri compared to her Lagos childhood and the confinement of a marriage to the stiff schoolteacher Nmeri was palpable. With the equally powerful characterisations of the oldest Lolo and the baby of the family Udo, completing the eponymous Three Sisters, played by Sarah Niles and Rachael Ofori, they provided a strong central pillar on which the play hangs. Yet, what makes occasions such as this so complete is when the apparently lesser characters fill up the empty spaces in the room. The writing and execution of the supporting cast built into the play in a way that gave it real depth. I particularly enjoyed the older ‘house help’, Nma, played by Anni Domingo, who brought an almost Shakespearian clown-like humour to proceedings while at times displaying real bathos as her fear of growing old and her hatred for the new comer Abosede’s arrogance shone through. The intercessions by Oke Obem (The Chant Poet) also reflected the deep Igbo attachment to the spiritual, giving a kind of Greek chorus effect but using traditional incantations. This also brought out for me the inevitability of fate and the Igbo connection to their ancestors.
What made the evening so intense too was the deep sense of history behind the writing that extended beyond the simple narrative of the Biafran succession and the Civil War and into discussion on the deeper causes of the division between the ethnic groups that framed the crisis and the neo-colonial roles of Britain and France. Those of you that have read my blogs will know my views on the failure of teaching about both indigenous African culture and the full consequences of colonisation and imperialism together in post-independence Nigeria and back here in the West. Ellams’ framing of that point in the dialogue between the teachers Lolo and Nmeri concerning the weaknesses of their school’s curriculum is as powerful in its current meaning as it was in the context of 1960’s Nigeria. The lead soldier Ikemba too is given the opportunity to deliver powerful messages about society’s bleak future. Neat touches such as the use of a broken clock to symbolise the lack of connection between a flawed past and an uncertain future add subtle touches to the narrative.
This production works for classical theatre fans and the Nigerian connection clearly attracted a much more diverse audience that I would normally have seen at a Chekhov production. It was a delight to see such an opportunity for these fine young black actors to play fully developed roles in a thoroughly well written production in a mainstream theatre. That they took this chance in both hands was a genuine pleasure demonstrated the depth of talent in the BAME community – and not least of Nigerian artists. The play is long at over three hours but the seats at the National are roomy and comfortable though I can imagine that these are physically demanding roles for the actors. On every level they are to be commended. Go and see it.