The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Winter 2019-2020
Adapter Inua Ellams
transports Chekhov's drama from nineteenth-century Russia to
twentieth-century Nigeria, teaching us something about African
history and far too little about the play.
Let's start with two
reminders. Chekhov's play is about a family living in a provincial
garrison town and homesick for Moscow. One sister has an affair with
an officer, another plans to marry a former soldier, the third and
their brother get sucked into local jobs, and when the soldiers move
away everyone is left even worse off than they were.
historically, the African country of Nigeria was created by European
colonists with no regard for tribal or cultural history, and in the
1960s, after the country gained independence, the largely Igbo
eastern district broke away to declare itself an independent Biafra.
After three years of civil war the government forces won and Biafra
was absorbed back into Nigeria.
Inua Ellams' play is
Chekhov's with names and places changed (The sisters yearn for
Lagos), interrupted at irregular intervals for awkwardly inserted
references to the Nigeria-Biafra conflict, the characters pausing in
mid-plot to tell each other things about local history and politics
that they already know, so that we can overhear them.
peacetime garrison is now a brigade of Biafran soldiers awaiting
combat orders, and the fire that devastates the village in the
original play is now the result of Nigerian air strikes.
characters African and setting the play in a war zone does nothing to
affect the meaning or resonances of the play and in fact risks
inclusion of characters
inclined to philosophise about whether happiness is possible in the
present or just something they must devote themselves to making
possible for the future is reduced to the very local level of When
The War Is Over.
This failure to enhance
the play by transforming it
is made particularly striking in contrast to two similar relocations
the London theatre has seen this year. In September Tanika Gupta
moved A Doll's House to British India, allowing overtones of racism
to sharpen our response to the sexism in Ibsen's play.
running, Martin Crimp's modern dress Cyrano De Bergerac sets
Rostand's rhymed couplets to the rhythms of rap, giving today's
audiences an appreciation of the characters' love of and delight in
A Doll's House is at
least partly about blind prejudice and
Rostand's about language, but The Three Sisters is not at all about
war – one suspects Chekhov only made some of the characters
soldiers to be able to have them all realistically depart at the end.
So Inua Ellams does not
illuminate or enrich Chekhov's play at all,
but merely uses it as a skeleton on which to hang a separate history
There isn't even much
alteration to the characters in making
them African. Racheal Ofori plays the youngest sister as a little
sassier and less of a virginal blank than some others in the role,
and the love affair of the Masha and Vershunin figures (Natalie
Simpson and Ken Nwosu) involves a little more passionate kissing than
you might be used to.
But that's really about it, and the best that can be said of this Three Sisters is that, except when it is digressing into African history, it doesn't get too much in the way of the play.
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