National Theatre, London ★★★✩✩
LOVERS of Chekhov may find a lot to hate in this reinvention of the Russian master’s 1900 classic.
Writer Inua Ellams — creator of the National’s hit Barber Shop Chronicles — has plonked Chekhov’s play in Nigeria just before and during the country’s civil war (the Biafra War) of the late 1960s.
The city that the sisters — Lolo (Sarah Niles), Nne Chukwu (Natalie Simpson) and Udo (Racheal Ofori, pictured) — pine for is not Moscow, but Lagos. So far, so good.
But whereas Chekhov’s original is defined by the siblings’ need to live life to the full while being stranded in provincial isolation, Ellams places them at the centre of a national crisis.
The stylish, upper-class family are Igbo, a people whose identity drives the movement to form a new country called Biafra. In this Three Sisters, warplanes screech overhead and bombs drop.
It explodes that brilliant thing about Chekhov: revealing the inner torment of being in a place where nothing happens.
Best then to think of this instead as a new play that reveals the destructive forces that can drive national identity.
It’s also a sobering if somewhat over-egged history lesson about colonialist Britain’s duplicitous hand in the war to achieve its own ends — a point which is made by at least four speeches in the play.
Outstanding in Nadia Fall’s production (which could do with a cut) is Niles as eldest sister Lolo. She is the moral conscience of the story, subverting Peter Bankole’s military intelligence officer Nmeri Ora, who argues passionately for his populist cause but hasn’t the stomach to kill or be killed on its behalf.
Ultimately this is a very thought-provoking evening. But you still leave wanting to see the play that Ellams might have written without Chekhov’s help.