Anton Chekhov’s melancholy, endlessly adaptable sisters have shown up in plenty of guises on London’s stages this year. In Inua Ellams’s version for the National Theatre, their misery is given a tumultuous new backdrop; they’re living in the newly declared state of Biafra, as war with Nigeria rages. And Chekhov’s original story, like these three women, is just about resilient enough to cope.
Where Chekhov’s characters moulder uneventfully in a remote Russian dacha, Ellams’s central trio are living in the ’60s, a time of social change and nationalist hope that’s constantly thwarted by British meddling and the legacy of colonialism. Hopeful 20-year-old Lolo (Sarah Niles), politically minded schoolteacher Udo (Racheal Ofori) and miserably married Nne (Natalie Simpson) are living in the rural house their father built for them to persuade them to reconnect with their Igbo heritage.
Ellams had a colossal hit with 2017’s NT smash ‘Barber Shop Chronicles’, an epic-but-episodic trip through African hairdressers across the world that shone out for its loving eye for cultural specifics. His magnifying mirror comes out again here; he supplements Chekhov’s text with careful references to Nigeria’s tribes and their history, plus enough nods to twenty-first-century diaspora culture to make the audience rock with unexpected laughter. For all its historical detail, Nadia Fall’s production is very much the comedy that ‘Three Sisters’ is so rarely allowed to be, full of broadly drawn comic figures like Abosede (Ronke Adekoluejo), who transforms herself from put-upon country girl into proud velvet-clad matriarch.
If the specifics shine, the play's structure can sometimes sag under the weight of the explosive events happening just outside the frame. Some of Chekhov’s plot points feel flimsy; it’s surreal that the three sisters are fussing over their brother’s gambling debts while dead bodies mount inside their house, or that they’re still furious over the treatment of their ageing servant as a long siege rages. The lines that shine out most brightly are existential ones; the ones where these women ask whether their suffering has meaning, and whether they’re really building a better world. These questions feel so much more poignant in the context of a futile war, in a precarious country that's struggling to emerge from colonial oppression.
Ellams’s approach feels deliberately educational, clearly pointing to the harm done by a British government that prioritises Nigeria’s convenient oil resources over the lives of its people. Where Chekhov’s story has a kind of nihilistic irrationality to it, everyone’s actions here are rooted in painful recent history. It’s a free adaptation that could afford to be freer, to dig into historical events without being tied to its Russian source – but when Ellams finds moments of synchronicity between continents, they’re painfully beautiful.