National Theatre, London – until 19 February 2019
As National Theatre marketing strategies aimed precisely at me go, the phrase ‘a new play by Inua Ellams after Chekhov’ was always going to have a success rate of 100%.
Three Sisters, Ellams’ fresh take on the Chekhov play, uproots the titular family from mother Russia to Nigeria during the Biafran Civil War. As someone whose knowledge of the original is based purely on Wikipedia I shouldn’t be trusted at an authority on this, but I believe the plot is largely untouched. It’s the setting, the emphasis and the interpretation that are different. More importantly – fidelity to the original not being high on my priority list nor something I can accurately judge – it’s the setting, the emphasis and the interpretation that make for a fascinating and engaging piece of theatre.
For me, what makes this Three Sisters so good is that it works on multiple levels: it’s a great story first and foremost, it’s recognisably Chekhovian (if that’s important to you), it’s a brilliant history play about a piece of history that I was 100% ignorant of, it’s a powerful critique of foreign intervention (and non-intervention) in African politics, and it’s a deep and moving play about identity, and identity politics, too.
Set in the 1960s and 70s it may be, but the issues it speaks to feel fresh off the page. There’s brilliant and troubling exploration of what makes someone The Other, and when and how someone who was previously not The Other can become so, in particular. Ellams’ writing is always so multifaceted and so beautiful and this is no exception.
It’s also rather unexpectedly funny and, less unexpectedly, peopled by fantastically vivid, complex and human characters. The way Ellams has sculpted and tweaked Chekhov’s cast is brilliant. His versions feel totally his own, and the plot feels almost totally organic (the exception, for my money, being the final scenes’ predictable adherence to the rule about Chekhov plays and guns on stage).
Directed by Nadia Fall, there’s no question that the play is a bit of a beast, clocking in at over three hours in length (authentically Chekhovian too I guess). But it doesn’t feel long at all. It positively zips along, even in some of the necessarily exposition heavy early scenes. It looks absolutely stunning too; Katrina Lindsay’s sun soaked, evocative and increasingly portentous set providing a brilliant and technically clever frame for the action. There’s an intriguing and sparse use of music too, courtesy of composer Femi Temowo, which includes great use of ‘chant poetry’ which really roots the play, not just geographically and historically but also firmly within an atmosphere of the past intruding on the present in unpredictable ways.
The large cast involved in bringing this story to life is equally strong. In a piece with so many ‘main’ characters it’s hard to single anyone out – and they all work so well as an ensemble – but for me the wonderful Sarah Niles is a clear highlight as oldest sister Lolo, a performance full of heart and joy and sadness. It’s great to see Ken Nwosu back on the NT’s stages too and his work as Ikemba, an at times not easily sympathetic character, is great. And I always love watching Sule Rimi. His Onyinyechukwu is one of the most interesting, despite not having masses of stage time, and Rimi is fantastic.
Look, there’s no question that Three Sisters represents a serious investment of your time. But it is worth it. This is a great piece, whether you have strong feelings on Chekhov or not, and it’s beautifully done in this production.
Three Sisters is in the Lyttelton at the National Theatre until 19th February.
I paid for this one and sat in G9, a snip at £15.