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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Three Sisters
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.

Jumping ahead 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 essentially 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.

Chekhov's 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.

Making the 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 trivialising them.

Chekhov's signature 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.

And currently 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 language.

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 lesson.

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.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Three Sisters - National Theatre 2019
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