Buoyed by first-rate performances, this production transforms the Russian classic into an eye-opening account of the Biafran war.
Inua Ellams describes his new play, his first since Barber Shop Chronicles, as “after Chekhov”. He has taken the characters of Three Sisters and relocate them from provincial Russia to Nigeria between 1967 and 1970 during Biafra’s attempted secession.
The result is a startlingly vivid account of the civil war and a direct assault on British neocolonialism. I just wish Ellams had been less faithful to Chekhov. Structurally, the play stays close to the template. It is set in a village in Owerri, where three sisters think back longingly to Lagos. One of them, Lolo, is a hard-working teacher; the married middle sister, Nne Chukwu, has an affair with a military commander; the youngest, Udo, sees her dreams of happiness shattered.
All of this is true to Chekhov. But we also see the brutal consequences of civil war, including death and starvation, and at the end we witness Biafra’s doomed attempt to create a separate republic.
Ellams brilliantly uses the context to sharpen specific relationships. The hostility of the sisters to their brother’s wife, which in the original seems like snobbery, is explained by the fact that they belong to the dominant Igbo ethnic group, while she is a Yorùbá. The reason for the failure of Nne Chukwu’s marriage also becomes clear when you realise it was arranged when she was 12. Above all, the play offers a searing attack on British responsibility for the war dating to the time when they created Nigeria out of 250 ethnic groups and languages.
While the play offers an eye-opening account of the civil war, Chekhov sometimes gets in the way. The point of the original is that, in the course of three years, nothing essentially changes. Here, however, we see a brave vision of Biafran independence being fatally shattered. Although Nne Chukwu attacks Udo for worrying about private problems during a period of public upheaval, her own affair with the commander also loses some of its dramatic significance as the country is being torn apart.
For all my cavils about Ellams grafting a new play on to an old model, Nadia Fall’s visually impressive production contains a host of fine performances. Sarah Niles makes Lolo a politically vigorous figure who vehemently attacks both British colonialism and Igbo tribalism. Natalie Simpson movingly conveys Nne Chukwu’s lifelong resentment at an enforced marriage and Racheal Ofori shows Udo’s transition from naive optimism to acceptance of tragic reality.
But there is strength in depth throughout the company. Ken Nwosu hints at the vanity behind the commander’s philosophising, Tobi Bamtefa disintegrates memorably as the sisters’ once high-flying brother and Jude Akuwudike is all growing disillusion as the brigade doctor. Ronke Adekoluejo also has the right brashness as the brother’s Yoruba bride, whose own clandestine affair actually ensures the family is fed, and Anni Domingo as an elderly retainer embodies the bolshy outspokenness of age.
The production and the performances are first-rate, and the house rose spontaneously at the end of a long evening. Yet I still wish Ellams had been even more ruthlessly radical in rewriting Chekhov.
- At the Lyttelton, London, until 19 February.