“Three Sisters”: National Theatre

Jeremy Malies on the South Bank
1 December 2019


There seem to be two current styles of presenting Chekhov: making the setting timeless or viewing the action through a radically reworked historical and cultural lens. An example of the former is Conor McPherson’s new version of Uncle Vanya in the West End (which I review elsewhere here) The latter style is represented at the National Theatre, where Inua Ellams has adapted Three Sisters for the setting of Nigeria in the late 1960s.

This is an intriguing backdrop with the brilliant idea that the Natasha character (the hated acquisitive in-law who marries heir to the estate Andrey) is from a different ethnic group to her husband and the sisters. The stakes increase, and what might have been a flashy “concept” production becomes a coherent framework, fully embracing the original when we realize, with foreboding, that this is the region of Nigeria which for three awful years became the war-torn and famine-ravaged state of Biafra.

Ellams, together with director Nadia Fall, conjures up the era with a wealth of socio-political detail but avoids any impression that we are being given a history lesson. You come away convinced as always that in deft hands Chekhov’s plays are so robust they can be transported across continents, ethnicity, and half a century with no loss of impact, so fundamental are the predicaments confronting the characters.


Sarah Niles, Racheal Ofori and Natalie Simpson. Credit: The Other Richard.


The production is anchored in exquisite performances from Ken Nwosu and Natalie Simpson in the Vershinin and Masha roles. Nwosu is at turns convincingly soldierly and world-weary while also being in love with philosophy, words, and the most glamorous sister in the trio. Simpson (a former lan Charleson Award winner, a Shakespeare specialist, and possessed of prodigious technical skills) suggests a disillusioned socialite marooned in this backwater far from the longed-for metropolis of Lagos but still able to relish the verbal pyrotechnics. The production is a sustained joy but it is during the adulterous couple’s dialogue that it really takes flight. 

l’ve taken a broad brush here, using character names as written by Chekhov rather than restyled by Ellams in order to highlight how the adaptor makes outstanding use of the core material to introduce a political dimension while retaining the rubric of the play. Ellams’ achievement is to remind us (or educate younger people) about a secessionist campaign fought by the lgbo people during a civil war that saw about a million fatalities.

Fall’s direction draws out the minutiae of two clandestine love affairs and the shabby-genteel predicament of this once grand family. Ellams’ focus is the geopolitical and power politics; it is so assured that Fall can largely leave things on autopilot. Colonialism runs throughout, and as Lolo (the Olga equivalent) Sarah Niles is empathetic as she agonizes over having to teach pupils using British-centric textbooks. For me, the most resonant line is speculation during an argument over strategy that if the lgbo people accept French armaments they will simply morph from British imperialism to Francophonie.


The ensemble. Credit: The Other Richard.


With these macro elements, aspects of the original plot such as the presence of the army garrison and the fire are even more logical. Ellams’ script highlights the residue of British exploration and colonial paternalism with some telling lines: “Mungo Park ‘discovered’ the Niger River when our ancestors had been bathing in it before his parents were born!”

Cavils? l delight in adaptors like Ellams creating free interpretations of classic texts, but for a few moments the whole dynamic of the original play is submerged by the political freight. Occasionally there are sly, excessively prescient references such as the future possibility of a black member of the British royal family. On the night, it brought matters (rather awkwardly) to a halt for a round of applause and, given recent retirements from official duties, now seems particularly limp and cheap.

But the evening is still right on the money in terms of a thorough treatment of many Chekhovian themes. The characters are starved of love, conscious that they are low achievers, and aware that they probably face yet more disappointments. For much of the action the happiest person is the intruder by marriage Abosede (the Natasha character) who has a Teflon ability to deflect insults which even become tribal. She is played with comic invention and wonderful swagger by Ronke Adekoluejo.

Designer Katrina Lindsay manages to fill the notoriously wide Lyttelton stage in a credible manner, initially with the verandah of the family bungalow. She is also responsible for the costumes which catch late sixties European fashion as it might be refracted a little clumsily in an African prism. The backdrop immerses us in lgbo culture from the off with the appearance of Amarachi Attamah. She is an author and promoter of lgbo culture, here portraying a soothsayer and chant poet who provides a choral commentary on the action during scene changes. This is an authentic, bold, and mesmeric reworking.


Jeremy Malies