The Agwu Brothers became The Fishermen on January 18, 1996. Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin. This fate was not written in their father’s map of dreams; his sights were set on more prestigious occupations for his sons. In his eyes, academics are more valuable than sportsmen – he prayed for a doctors, lawyers and a family pilot. One day, while fishing at the forbidden Omi-Ala River of Akure Town in Nigeria, the brothers happen across the local madman, who predicts that the eldest brother, Ikenna, will die by the hands of a fisherman. This is the story of how that prophecy comes true.
Fresh from a sellout run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, this production of Chigozie Obioma‘s Man Booker-shortlisted novel has been adapted for the stage by award winning playwright Gbolahan Obisesan. It is told through the eyes of the youngest two of the four siblings: Ben and Obembe, played by the indefatigable Michael Ajao and Valentine Olukoga. We meet the brothers as they see each other for the first time in almost a decade. Ben has been away in solitary confinement for eight years as punishment for killing an army soldier, while Obembe, full of the guilt for his part in his brother’s conviction, has been on the run from the family home and the disappointment of his parents.
Olukoga and Ajao are absolute masters of their craft. Both are remarkable in their own right, and together their chemistry is both moving and exciting in equal measure. In addition to their principal parts, they take on multiple and countless roles with acute precision, and to great effect. Each different character has a signature of considered mannerisms: a disproving finger combined with a dip of the hip and they are mother; father is flared nostrils and a furrowed brow, while Abulu the Madman moves like a snake and speaks with a maniacal high-pitched voice.
The no-frills style of the piece draws attention to the raw talent of these two actors. Amelia Jane Hankin’s minimal design sees the action take place on a raised wooden platform, cylindrical in shape. A line of scaffolding poles set in an s-formation divides the stage into two halves – they are the wall between opposite rooms, the fence that separates the boys’ garden from their neighbours’, or the tall crops in the fields through which they run. Sometimes, the poles are removed and carried around as fishing rods. The props are scant, too. There is an original Game Boy, a football, and a rucksack – the boyhood survival kit of the 90s.
The beauty of brotherhood is at the heart of Jack McNamara’s production, while Obisesan’s writing brings a profound sense of the love it brings. It is seen when Ben and Obembe caringly but fastidiously correct minor details in each others’ version of events, when Ben playfully teases Obembe for not being able to sing as well as Mary J. Blige or when they reminisce over the taste of Mummy’s Eba and Ogbono soup. It is heard when they sing together in perfect harmony. These tender moments make the latter stages of the story all the more heartbreaking to watch.