Love Is A Battleground In Ellams’ Three Sisters At National Theatre

Three Sisters, National Theatre ★★★★☆

Love Is A Battleground In Ellams’ Three Sisters At National Theatre Three Sisters, National Theatre 4
Photo: The Other Richard

Inua Ellams’ Three Sisters is a compelling, nuanced piece of ensemble theatre at its finest, challenging audiences with a reimagining of the Chekhov classic that almost works even more powerfully when set amid the Nigerian civil war of 1967. With cunning set and costume design by Katrina Lindsay, allowing for the all-important family home to morph as it becomes increasingly imperilled, the complex story of family rivalry unfolds before a veranda that feels like a safe hideaway from the world.

Photo: The Other Richard

Amid gentle joshing and flirtation, Udo (Racheal Ofori), the youngest of the three sisters, childishly makes demands on her birthday as the curtain rises, while her eldest sister, Lolo (Sarah Niles), shows more interest in remembering their dead father. The impetuous middle sister, Nne Chukwu (Natalie Simpson), meanwhile, prefers to let the world know how unhappy she is in her marriage to the dullish local school fop. All three pine for the lights of Lagos but are firmly stuck in the world of their remote villa for the foreseeable.

Photo: The Other Richard

As the clan exchanges jabs, party guests with military ranks set the stage for the coming disaster, boastfully predicting great fortune for their revolution. We all know the fate of newly formed Biafra is anything but fortunate, yet the dashing officers’ naivety offers a rare chance to dream big in a newly forming nation.

Director Nadia Fall has built a textured, messy and wholly conceivable family with all its rivalries and shifting loyalties, while incorporating specific crises from Nigeria, a central one being the ethnic tensions of the Igbo people, desperate to cling to privilege in the form of this family. Layers of richness are added, from painstakingly researched Igbo lyrics and music, to east Nigerian customs and traditions, thus Three Sisters benefits from close study —  lectures, writer and cast sessions run throughout February.

Photo: The Other Richard

Audiences in Chekhov’s time also found Three Sisters challenging, and the play never won the acclaim of The Seagull or The Cherry Orchard. His world also witnessed the rising tide of revolution, although he died just before the Bolshevik coup.

Nevertheless, his world of vast class differences, put-upon serfs eeking out a living under the boot of czars and family dacha retreats from the violence bubbling up all around make for insightful parallels with central Africa of the 60s.

Photo: The Other Richard

Ultimately, it’s the personal story of the sisters that drives this production, though. We connect with Lolo’s toughness as she agrees to join a doomed regime in redrafting the school curriculum to correct the whitewashed version of Nigeria’s history written by the British. We also intuitively feel Udo’s need to cling to a cosseted life as she rebuffs the local military man, while bored Nne Chukwu takes up with the married commander — wholly understandable, just as is her husband’s willingness to take back his prize bride. Meanwhile, each is boxed in in her own way by the games and ambitions of men, of course.

Brother Dimgba (Tobi Bamtefa), another brilliant academic who finds his fortunes shifting as he marries a non-Igbo woman, Abosede (Ronke Adekoluejo) who gains access to a powerful rebel chief, is another tragic character that transcends 19th-century Russia. He clings increasingly to a ridiculous title on the local council as he goes bankrupt, his new wife taking over the household, demanding the firing of the beloved, dotty maid, Nma (the hilarious Anni Domingo).

War, refugees, starvation and betrayal, of course, hardly impact the family’s own politics, except perhaps to attenuate them. Is a household, then, the ultimate battlefield? And how does that parallel a country designed to fail by its colonial overlords? The cozy veranda life was always ever a dream — and audiences will awaken with a start at this fine company’s song of survival.

Three Sisters, National Theatre, South Bank, SE1 9PX. Tickets from £15, until 19 February 2020.

Last Updated 20 December 2019