Reviews Published 17 December 2019

Review: Three Sisters at National Theatre

On a cliff edge: Ava Wong Davies writes on a powerful new setting for Inua Ellam’s play.

Ava Wong Davies

Three Sisters at National Theatre. Photo: The Other Richard

Here’s a show to sink deep into. Inua Ellams’ adaptation of Three Sisters runs at an impressive 3 hours 15 minutes, a fact which caused me minor consternation on election night. Not to worry – well, that’s not true, much to worry about – but thankfully not in regard to this.

Three Sisters is a play utterly suited to the idea of precarious peacetime, and Ellams gives that idea a little nudge, bumping his Three Sisters closer to a vertiginous cliff edge. He relocates pre-revolutionary Chekhov to 1960s Nigeria, just on the cusp of the Biafran War, wherein the people of Biafra attempted a secession from Nigeria, culminating in an unthinkably brutal conflict. At its start, Udo, Lolo, and Nne Chukwu are sequestered in a beautiful but rural home, relocated from Lagos by their beloved father. Now, their father is dead, and all three are languishing, desperate for a return to the city, while the threat of war looms like a shadow over their porch. There’s nothing pre-revolutionary here – the bloodshed comes, at one point, right into the sisters’ home. The world around the trio accelerates downhill after a leisurely opening scene set in peacetime, and the sisters themselves mutate and strain, as is inevitable – and yet, simultaneously, some things remain eerily still, seemingly preserved in amber.

It’s a languorous piece, stretching all the way into the Lyttleton’s crevices, stirring something in the air. It recalibrates the head, pushes you (me) to quieten your (my) whirring election-day brain, to linger in the moment, to take it slow, to wait and to wait and to wait. Because it doesn’t seem illogical that the sisters wouldn’t leave their home, even when the casualties pile up – after all, their Biafran flag hangs proud and vibrant against the house’s pale walls. They are utterly resolute but also trapped by a brutal civil war which has larger colonial implications in Britain’s vested interest and watchful eye, which looms large and inescapable (“Pulling a knife out isn’t progress…and Britain haven’t even pulled it out yet.”) It’s not that the sisters don’t ever attempt to go back to Lagos – it’s that they genuinely can’t during wartime. Time isn’t the only thing at play here – war proves corrosive. The war approaches, and then it arrives, and then it ends, “just like that,” and the wind whistles empty through the grass, and the three women are left to hold each other.

Historical context is woven in with deft grace by Ellams and though it can inevitably feel a little dense at points, it works – Chekhov’s always had a slightly strange, arch tone anyway (I truly doubt the line “Father died last year” has ever sounded normal onstage.) For the most part, Ellams eschews lyricism for an appealing simplicity in his dialogue – but when pockets of poeticism appear, they are utterly startling – the image of people stumbling out of the woods after a bombing, “holding their intestines,” has lingered, horrifyingly stubborn, in my mind. Nadia Fall’s production hasn’t totally figured out the pacing yet, and the final act’s staging of a normally unseen duel feels overly emphatic, but for the most part, it’s a Three Sisters which feels consistently detailed and generous in its outlook.

Because in the past, those titular sisters have grated – seemingly spoiled, petulant rich women, languishing in their own despair, reluctant to actually, you know, do anything. Not so here – though that isn’t to say that they’re virtuous martyrs – they bully their sister-in-law, Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo’s stunning, scene-stealing Abosede for her Yoruba heritage and inability to match prints. Sarah Niles’ Lolo, the eldest, is less spinsterish schoolteacher and more passionate, pragmatic revolutionary – pushing hard for educational reform and a decolonised syllabus at her school in one of Ellams’ best and fieriest additions. Natalie Simpson as Nne, the middle sister, holds herself taut and wiry in that opening act, all crossed legs and rigid arms, jaded by her marriage (arranged by her father when she was 12, in an astute addition from Ellams) before slowly unfurling during her affair with Ikemba (a beautifully understated and dignified Ken Nwosu). And Racheal Ofori as Udo, the youngest of the three, has a bright, naïve charm which is not so much abruptly turned off as it is dimmed by war and time. Much praise should go to Katrina Lindsay’s thoughtful costumes – Lolo is clad in structural shirts and ankle-skimming skirts, Nne is dressed in elegant but restrictive shift dresses, and Udo, in that languid, sun-spilled first act, makes her entrance in a gorgeously flicky, silky green dress, the shape of which matches her bouncing hair, turned up at the ends – youthful ebullience personified. Separately, they shine. Together, they’re monumental.

Lindsay’s design is sumptuous, allowing for so much quiet environmental storytelling – the first act has the porch of the sisters’ beloved family home rising out of encroaching yellow grass, all luxurious grey walls and cream shutters, bathed in Peter Mumford’s golden light. As war approaches, the house recedes into the Lyttleton’s inky depths, grass and hanging vines saturated in blue-black light. People wordlessly drift around the back of the stage, wreathed in grey fog, shadowy and eerie. And then, in that desperate fourth act, the house disappears altogether, gambled off by Tobi Bamtefa’s prideful Dimgba, replaced instead by that tall grass which curled around the edges of the first act and simple, empty space. People walk on and offstage, rustling through the undergrowth like whispering ghosts, with the sisters clad in pallid white – gorgeous and melancholy in equal measure. Three Sisters lingers for a while in the body afterwards – a soft, yearning ache, embedded somewhere in the bones.

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Ava Wong Davies is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Three Sisters at National Theatre Show Info


Directed by Nadia Fall

Written by Inua Ellams and Anton Chekhov

Cast includes Sarah Niles, Natalie Simpson, Racheal Ofori, Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo, Jonathan Ajayi, Jude Akuwudike, Tobi Bamtefa, Peter Bankolé, Anni Domingo, Lola May, Jerome Ngonadi, Ken Nwosu, Joseph Ogeleka, Nasa Ohalete, Offue Okegbe, Chloe Okora, Sule Rimi, Diana Yekinni

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