Review - Three Sisters at the National Theatre (Lyttelton)
Instead of Olga, Masha and Irina, the title characters of Inua Ellams's comprehensive re-write and reappropriation of Chekhov's Three Sisters are Lolo, Nne Chukwu and Udo. Instead of longing for a return to Moscow from the provincial Russian town that they've ended up in, these women (and their brother Dimgba, called Andrey in the original) are in a small village in Owerri, Nigeria, pining for Lagos.
This is the second major version of the play to be seen on a London stage this year, following the Almeida's production in April, which I reviewed here, and said, "an endlessly wintry play succumbs to directorial smoke and mirrors."
There's more directorial intervention in this outing, too, but this time it is both more cogent and even more radical, prompting us to view the play through a different cultural lens entirely.
This makes a vibrant case for the universality of Chekhov's themes. But more importantly the production also gives it a cultural specificity that re-frames the play at a precise time in Nigeria's recent past, namely during the civil war that waged there following the declaration of the independence of the Republic of Biafra in 1967 (and brought to an end by the surrender of Biafra in 1970, during which more almost two million citizens died of starvation during a blockade of the territory).
Nadia Falls's expansive production, on the high, wide stage of the Lyttelton, pulses with a sense of danger and conflict, both personal and political. The two worlds collide with a gripping intensity that's given a fluid, if occasionally stately, flow in a resonantly well-acted staging (it runs for over three hours). Sarah Niles, Natalie Simpson and Racheal Ofori are magnificently individual as the sisters, with Tobi Bamtefa as their brother and a large ensemble providing plenty of characterful work.
Katrina Lindsay's monumental set, which offers an exterior veranda view of the family home (that they will eventually lose) as the play opens and then swivels around to reveal the interior, also adeptly and atmospherically goes to other exterior locations.
British productions of Chekhov are usually light on laughter and heavy on the tragedy of the situations they portray, but the most striking fact of Fall's production is that for all the piercing drama that unfolds is how much genuine humour it finds. An audience that was refreshingly mixed for once at the National responded audibly in a way that is rarely heard here, let alone in Chekhov.
Three Sisters is at the National Theatre until 19th February.