Last Updated on January 19, 2020 by Fiona Maclean
Inua Ellam’s Three Sisters – a Universal Tale.
Three Sisters is a new play written by Inua Ellams based on the Chekhov drama of the same name. Chekhov’s play, first staged in 1901, is set in 1850, in a provincial Russian garrison town where the sisters yearn for their home in Moscow. Ellams’ captivating script sets the story in Nigeria where the three sisters yearn for their home in Lagos. It is 1967 and they are living in a provincial village in Owerri on the eve of the declaration of the Republic of Biafra and the ensuing civil war.
Directed by Nadia Fall, Three Sisters is loyal to Chekhov’s narrative and for those familiar with the original, there was pleasure in watching the play unfold in a completely different world. The complex relationships between sisters and the vicissitudes of love are universal experiences and the drama worked convincingly in its new context.
Ellams is known to National Theatre audiences for his marvellous play, The Barbershop Chronicles. Once again, his script is full of story-telling, amusing jokes and references which had the audience hooting with laughter. However, as in Chekhov’s story, Three Sisters is a tale filled with pathos – three well-educated women – each speaks four languages – are exiled from their home due to political upheaval and are striving to find a purpose. The eldest, Lolo, is a teacher in the local school, the middle sister, Nne Chukwu, is bored and frustrated with her life, while the youngest, Udo, is seeking a purpose. Their emotional lives are a tangle of complication. Lolo (Sarah Niles) is secretly in love with Nne Chukwu’s husband, Onyinyechukwu (Sule Rimi), a fellow teacher. Nne Chukwu (Natalie Simpson) is bored in her arranged marriage and falls for a soldier, Ikemba (Ken Nwosu), who appears in the town on the eve of the Biafran War. He was known to the sisters when they were young girls as he was an officer in their father’s regiment. They nicknamed him ‘the sad soldier’. Soon his life is complicated by a passionate affair with Nne Chukwu while he tries to maintain his own marriage. Udo (Racheal Ofori) has never fallen in love, but she has two soldiers vying for her affections. The shocking and wasteful ending of the victor’s life brings the play to its climax when, despite the brutal war having ended, the killing does not.
While the three sisters are the central players, their brother, Dimgba (Tobi Bamtefa) is no less important. He is an academic, the pride of their late father whose death they are commemorating at the opening of the play. As the war creates devastation his career lies in tatters and he spends his time gambling with the mercenaries garrisoned in the village. He has married a skittish Yoruba woman, Abosede – a dangerous position for a person living in the heart of the Igbo community at a time when tribal divisions are intense. While all three sisters disapprove of Abosede (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo) with her ‘clothes that don’t match’, she seizes her chance to marry into an established family and having enchanted her husband with her penchant for trying ‘new things’, sets about asserting her dominance over him and subduing the entire family to her will. Through her affair with a powerful man in the military, she not only secures a food source for the family throughout the siege and ensuing mass starvation but manipulates the sale of the family home to her lover, thereby finally breaking the unity of the sisters and their brother who all live in the compound built by their father.
Abosede’s character transformation was excellent and very well portrayed not only by her growing confidence and bullying behaviour but in the evolution of her outfits. Costume designer (Katrina Lindsay) has done a fine job of styling the cast in a fabulous array of dresses and African prints which give way to far less stylish garb during the war. In the final, post-war scene, the sisters all wear white as if born anew, yet their outfits are soon to be metaphorically stained with blood. Lindsay also designed the impressive set which begins as a well-to-do, middle-class house with French doors and a comfortable patio and fashionable interior. Later as the war progressively takes its toll on the mental and physical health of the family, the actors stand in pools of spotlight, as if foregrounding and highlighting their pain. Lighting (designed by Peter Mumford) is itself an essential part of the play when Abosede argues with her husband about whether to turn out the lights to avoid detection from overhead bomber planes.
The family support the secession of Biafra, hoping that this will be a peaceful transition. Throughout the play, they argue about neo-colonialism, political strategy and education. The politics of the time is ever-present as sloganeering, political songs, flag burning all take place on stage. All the while marriages are betrayed – marriage is a journey of incremental disappointments, reflects one of the characters. The family’s uncle, Eze, played with good humour and sadness by Jude Akuwudike, advises his nieces that ‘if you go to a forest to find a perfect stick you will come back empty-handed’.
By the end of the play, everyone has lost – a home, a lover, a fiancé, hope, meaning. As in the Chekhov play, the drama ends with a declaration that we will never understand our suffering in this world. Lolo concludes, ‘I don’t understand all this suffering…when we die we will find out but I wish we knew now.’
The cast is strong throughout with excellent character development from all the main players – the three sisters as well as their brother. His crisis, having betrayed his sisters by selling the family home to manage his gambling debts and satisfy his wife, is portrayed with moving sensitivity. Nma (Anni Domingo), a woman who has worked for the family for 30 years has a wonderfully comedic presence especially in the light of her humiliation at the hands of the brother and his scheming wife. Ọka Mbem (Amarachi Attamah) is the chant poet whose haunting presence throughout the play adds to the sense of a family doomed. While her Igbo lyrics were not accessible to any non-Igbo speaking members of the audience, the tone of her incantations made her message clear.
Three Sisters is a history lesson on the Biafran War, the colonisation of Nigeria, neo-colonialism and the role of Britain’s exploitation of the country’s oil resources. At times it comes across as somewhat didactic, yet I appreciated the background information as did my younger companion who was born so long after the war and famine in Biafra as to have no prior knowledge of it.
Any play that runs to three hours needs to earn its length. Three Sisters generally moved at a good pace, albeit at times straying into polemic. It was full of drama, sympathetic characterisation, love, loss, longing and the ongoing politics of war. The actors were dynamic and engaged and the audience responded with delight and jubilation.
Three Sisters is on at the National Theatre until 19 February.
Lambeth SE1 9PX
Also showing at the National Theatre and highly recommended is My Brilliant Friend a two-part adaptation of the Neopolitan Novels. Or for something a little more festive, how about Circus 1903, coming soon at the Royal Festival Hall. We saw last year’s production and loved every minute