National Theatre, London – until 19 February 2019
A cracking cast heralds the return of Uncle Vanya to the West End early next year but even with Conor McPherson and Ian Rickson on adaptation and directorial duties respectively, it’s hard to get too excited about what – on the face of it – looks to be a fairly conventional interpretation (I could well be proven wrong, and hope I am…). For me, there’s something much more appealing, and thrilling, about people willing to grab Chekhov by the scruff of the neck and yank him way out of the familiar. Robert Icke and Simon McBurney replanting The Cherry Orchard in the Netherlands, or Inua Ellams and Nadia Fall relocating Three Sisters to 1960s Nigeria.
In the latter case, the result is a challenging but exhilarating reworking, set against the backdrop of the Biafran Civil War but retaining much of the Chekhovian structure, so that we feel the weight of all the tragedy that has to come. The skill of Ellams’ writing – this is dubbed a new play, after Chekhov – is knowing when to dovetail with his source material and when to allow his own choices to flourish, bringing with them a raft of glinting surprises that break through the familiarity (that some of us have).
The three sisters here are Lolo (Sarah Niles), Nne Chukwu (Natalie Simpson) and Udo (Racheal Ofori), members of a prominent Igbo family shuffled out of Lagos after the death of their father and chafing at the realities of their new provincial life. Those realities turn a lot uglier with the succession of the Republic of Biafra and as we visit the family over a period of three years, we see how war and politics, with a healthy dose of neocolonialism, refract on love and life. Yes there’s tragedy but there’s also a large swathe of comedy too – rarely has Chekhov been this funny – a necessary variety of tone over such an epic work.
And it does feel epic. Peter Mumford’s sun-bleached lighting uses shadow exceptionally well to suggest the danger lurking in the corners of Katrina Lindsay’s expansive design, with Fall conjuring some powerful performances from a deeply talented company. Niles’ Cassandra-like Lolo railing against both the corrosive British influence and its resulting tribal calamities, and a sensationally passionate Simpson rebelling against the arranged marriage she’s been in since age 12 by jumping Ken Nwosu’s military man. Making Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo’s sister-in-law Abosede a Yorùbá woman supercharges that dynamic too, to devastating effect, the public ethnic conflict made entirely personal.
With the ghosts of their ancestors given haunting voice by Amarachi Attamah singing Femi Temowo’s compositions, the atmosphere here is powerful and prescient. And though there may be shorter plays, and shorter adaptations, I’d argue that the length here is part of the point, the grind of that oppressive weight all the more powerful for its measured relentlessness. So this Three Sisters may be challenging as it asks us to pay attention to a piece of history we might not necessarily know enough about, but it is also exhilarating as it thoroughly but respectfully reinvigorates a classic.