Play: Three Sisters
Playwright: Inua Ellams
Director: Nadia Fall
Theatre: National Theatre
Review by Cherise Lopes-Baker
Inua Ellams, fresh from success of The Barbershop Chronicles, and A Half God of Rainfall, brings us a brilliant reimagining of Chekov’s Three Sisters, set during the Biafran War.
Ellams expertly enfolds us in the loss and longing of an Igbo family in Owerri. Opening on a gauzily lit, expansive veranda, we are introduced to three sisters: Lolo, Nne Chukwu and Udo. They all share a longing to leave their village and return to the cosmopolitan and exciting Lagos.
Lolo (Sarah Niles) is weary of her teaching job. Nne Chukwu (Natalie Simpson) is weary of her husband while Rachael Ofori’s Udo is weary of a life unlived. While the sisters pine for glory days, their brother Dimgba (Tobi Bamtefa), an eligible bachelor and respected scholar, is pursuing a local Yoruba girl. As birthday celebrations turn to war preparations, we are drawn into a quickly disintegrating household.
The three sisters find themselves descending into despair as they pursue their true desires: love, purpose, and education. Trapped in an arranged marriage, middle sister Nne Chukwu is disillusioned by the pretence of her schoolmaster husband, and falls irretrievably in love with the dashing, philosophising, and also married, commander.
Youngest sister Udo searches for purpose, but her naïveté and verve seem only to inspire romantic rivalry in those she does not wish to settle for. Oldest sister Lolo speaks, almost as the conscience of the play, against both British colonialism and Igbo tribalism as she contends with a colonial education system and fights for a new syllabus.
Meanwhile, their brother, once the pride of the family, has become a spineless gambler in the face of war and an unfulfilling marriage. His wife Abosede (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo) takes full advantage of this, and the rest of the family’s distractions, to unapologetically grapple for power until she is the complete master of the house. As the war draws fatally closer, tragedy and the caprice of fate close in on them all.
Evocatively staged against an absolutely stunning set by Katrina Lindsay, the entire ensemble burns with talent. Natalie Simpson as Nne Chukwu plays elegant boredom to passionate abandonment in excruciating fulfillment.
Rachael Ofori brings a pure and vivacious energy to Udo’s growth and Sarah Niles infuses Lolo with so much strength, vigour and vulnerability, it is impossible not to wish for someone to comfort her in turn.
Tobi Bamtefa plays the disintegration of Dimgba’s spirit to perfection while Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo gives an equally scintillating performance as his malicious wife. Jude Akuwudike and Anni Domingo also give flawless performances as the elders of the household, feeling not only the pain of the past, but the pain of the current generation as well.
Navigating humour, tragedy, and scathing colonial critique, Nadia Fall brilliantly directs Ellams’ poignant Biafran retelling to a standing ovation.
Three Sisters is at The Lyttleton, National Theatre, until 19th February 2020.
Picture credit: The Other Richard