Sisters are doing it for themselves in 1960s Biafra

There have been many versions of Three Sisters, but none as bold and as challenging as Inua Ellams’.

His new take on Chekhov’s classic, playing at the National Theatre, transports the action from rural Russia around 1900, to the Biafran war in Nigeria in the 1960s.

While this does naturally introduce some elements to the drama that are not present in the original, it is actually quite remarkable just how much remains in place.

At times shocking, and often quite thought-provoking, this is an intriguing production for dedicated theatre-goers.

The National Theatre is committed to exploring new works and issues around race, and this Three Sisters very much fits that bill.

Inua Ellams is a relatively young and unknown Nigerian playwright/poet, the author of the wonderfully named Candy Coated Unicorns, and he very wisely leans heavily on Chekhov’s original.

It is easy to list the many differences in this reworking, but more striking are all the similarities.

The dynamic between the three sisters, and their romantic entanglements remain the same.

The three title roles are well played by actresses familiar to London audiences, if often in less major parts, at the National and the RSC.

Three Sisters, National Theatre ©The Other Richard

In Ellams’ version Olga, the eldest school teacher sister, becomes Lolo, and is in the capable hands of Sarah Niles.

The middle sister Maria, Nne Chukwu, is equally well portrayed by Natalie Simpson, while Rachael Ofori plays the youngest sister Udo (Irina).

The dynamic between these three is well captured and very familiar to Chekhov fans, as is their longing for their hometown (Lagos in place of Moscow in the original).

The same is true of the sisters’ corpulent brother Dimgba (Tobi Bamtefa) who falls for the disastrous intruder in the family Ronke Adekoluejo.

And for the sisters’ various different soldier beaux Ikemba (Ken Nwosu), Nmeri (Peter Bankole), and the captivating Jonathan Ajayi as Igwe.

Jude Akuwudike is quite wonderful as the somewhat comical Eze (Ivan in the original) and Anni Domingo as the put upon housekeeper.

What is definitely not familiar is the setting of the Biafran war in Nigeria. I am sure the dates and events appear well worn to Inua Ellams, but even after a careful study of the programme it was hard for the audience to follow what was

This resetting also introduced three crucial elements that are obviously not present in the original.

It means that the soldiers, rather than languishing as the sisters’ play things in a provincial backwater, are now fighting in a bloody civil war.

This is disturbing to the dynamics. Death and starvation are not usually found in Chekhov, and, equally, you don’t normally see a country’s flag burnt on the National’s stage.

Equally out of kilter is the racial tension between the majority of the characters, who are Biafrans, and the Nigerians including Ronke Adekuluejo’s much detested sister-in-law.

This gives the sisters’ hostility to her a racist element. At one point she is shockingly dismissed as a “bush animal”.

Finally, setting the action in a former British colony gives a whole new anti-imperialist angle and the opportunity for lots of digs at the British – something that is familiar to National Theatre audiences, but is obviously absent in the original.

Thankfully, the production values are very high. The sets and costumes designed by Katrina Lindsay are quite brilliant, both at portraying rural Nigeria and at celebrating the clothes and styles of the 1960s.

And director Nadia Fall deserves warm praise for pulling together what would be an otherwise

disparate piece. All in all, a challengingly different take on a very old classic.
Not one for purists, but ideal for the experimental.

Three Sisters, at The National Theatre until February 11.
Box office: 20 7452 3000.

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