DramaLondonReviewWest End

Three Sisters – The National Theatre, London

Writer:  Inua Ellams

Director: Nadia Falls

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

It has been an interesting year for the reworking of classic dramas with both Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie being relocated to African American families bringing fascinating new resonance to these well-known texts. Now, Inua Ellams takes Chekhov to 1960s Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War as hoped-for independence and strong regional identity is fatefully frustrated by the legacy of British colonialism, military egos and ethnic cleansing.

Sisters Lolo, Nne Chukwu and Udo live close together in Owerri in the beloved home built by their late father, and now run by their academic brother Dimgba. Celebrating Udo’s birthday, the news arrives that Biafra has declared independence with war and devastation following close behind. As the family debate their future and dream of returning to Lagos, lives, loves and power struggles are entirely upended with no one and nothing left unscathed.

Ellams is a playwright able to create the most extraordinary reactions in his audience and, like The Barbershop Chronicles which twice played so successfully at the National, sitting among people seeing Three Sisters for the first time, his story elicits gasps, cheers and many other vocal exclamations as it unfolds across a rather lengthy three hours and 15 minutes because Ellams situates his story perfectly in the context of the Biafran War. He brings a clear political shape to the adaptation which charts the years 1967-1970 as a backdrop while exploring the human consequences for one particular family and their friends.

Katrina Lindsay’s stage and costume design are particularly striking, a beautiful villa situated in woods and reeds that is architecturally sophisticated, clearly monied and chic. In the first two Acts the 1960s stylings of babydoll and shift dresses with high and curled Jackie Kennedy hair do just enough to suggest the strong influence of Euro-US culture, mirrored in Michael Henry’s pop music choices from the decade. But Acts Three and Four pushes the family into clothing with styles and patterns influenced by traditional and tribal patterns, a sartorial rediscovery of national identity. The natural landscape becomes more prominent too, lit beautifully by Peter Mumford who fills the stage with atmospheric colours as the political temperature changes.

The downside to Ellams’ heavily war-based drama is that the three sisters are often relegated to the side-lines while the battle plans, political debates and explosive anger of the male characters is foregrounded. There are more opportunities for the women to be alone on stage later in the play as it refocuses on the romantic subplots but their time together is noticeably short and frequently truncated by the appearance of men who shoo them away and continue to expound on how the oil trade influenced the recognition of Biafra’s independence or the secret arms trading behind the war – it’s still a stimulating play, but one that noticeably reduces the time for the female characters.

Sarah Niles has the least stage time as pseudo-matriarch Lolo but conveys the passion she feels for free education and even her own sacrifice that prevented her marriage. Racheal Ofori’s Udo noticeable grows-up through the story as the sweet and hopeful girl is forced to settle for the same compromised dreams as her sisters, while Natalie Simpson is full of sympathetic heartache as the unhappily married Nne Chukwu, but its Ronke Adékoluejo as their sister-in-law whose comic timing dominates the second half of the show.

Tobi Bamtefa’s Dimgba is equally changed by war, selling his intellectual gifts for a small opportunity for power. Ken Nwosu’s Ikemba is full of passionate intensity as the troubled soldier torn between his family, duty and love for Nne Chukwu, while rivals Peter Bankoléas Nmeri Ora and Jonathan Ajayi as Igwe help to translate the national context into the domestic sphere.

Ellams play is long and at times the pace slackens, particularly in Act Two as characters wait for something to happen. The context requires quite a lot of additional exposition in the dialogue to explain changing events to the audience and suggest who was to blame which is sometimes clunky, but there is a ferocity about this adaptation that overcomes its flaws. Three Sister may be transposed to a new era, but this is a production with a purpose, one that brings its greater significance and meaning to a whole new audience.

Runs Until:  19 February 2020 | Image: The Other Richard

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