Chekhov’s Three Sisters has been lifted from its Russian roots and transplanted all over the world over the last century or so. Inua Ellams’ new version drops it into 1960s Nigeria, at the height of the Biafran War. The Prozorovs are now the Onuzos. Olga, Maria and Irina have become Lolo, Nne Chukwu and Udo.
Ellams had a huge hit with Barber Shop Chronicles, which debuted at the National Theatre in 2017, before touring extensively. His next play, The Half God of Rainfall, ran in Birmingham and London earlier this year, and now he’s back at the National Theatre. Three Sisters runs in the Lyttleton until mid-February.
It’s directed by Nadia Fall, artistic director of Theatre Royal Stratford East, and features Sarah Niles, Natalie Simpson and Racheal Ofori as the eponymous siblings, plus Ken Nwosu, Tobi Bamtefa, Jude Akuwudike, Ronke Adekoluejo, Anni Domingo, and others.
But will Three Sisters successfully slide from Russia to Nigeria? Does Ellams have another hit on his hands? What do the critics think of this translocated Chekhov?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
The original Three Sisters is set in rural Russia in the mid-nineteenth century, in a small, provincial town where nothing much happens. Ellams’ update, however, is set during the bloody war between Nigeria and the secessionist state of Biafra. The switch, according to the critics, mostly works.
“The new setting gives the play a freshness and punch that makes its humane complications and disappointments live and breathe in new air,” writes Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage ★★★★), while Tom Birchenough (ArtsDesk ★★★★) calls Ellams’ rewrite “a bold move the adds decided new relevance to the action”.
“His adaptation, which takes place during the three years of active combat, explores Britain’s shameful role in the Biafran War, the devastation of colonialism and the futility of the fight for emancipation,” analyses JN Benjamin (The Stage ★★★★). “But, at its heart, this remains a play about family – how they love each other, fight with one another, and ultimately how they come together in times of crisis.”
For Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph ★★★★), it’s “a superb adaptation” that brilliantly fuses the personal and political while demonstrating that Chekhov can thrive far beyond the bounds of Europe” and confirms Ellams as “one of our most exciting, insightful playwrights”.
It’s not a totally smooth rewrite, though. For Nick Curtis (Evening Standard ★★★) it’s “fascinating but uneven” and makes for “a compelling, frustrating evening” in which “you can see a great play trying to come out”. For Clive Davis (Times ★★), meanwhile, the idea “has potential”, but Ellams doesn’t “find the right tone”.
“The play’s structure can sometimes sag under the weight of the explosive events happening just outside the frame,” observes Alice Saville (TimeOut ★★★). “It’s a free adaptation that could afford to be freer.”
Michael Billington (Guardian ★★★) sees the same problem, writing that “while the play offers an eye-opening account of the civil war, Chekhov sometimes gets in the way”, and wishing that “Ellams had been even more ruthlessly radical in rewriting”.
Nadia Fall took over at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 2018, and has since staged productions of August Wilson’s King Hedley II and Lope de Vega adaptation The Village. Before that, though, she was an associate director at the National for five years. How does she do on her return?
Well, there are criticisms – the show is “uneven and overlong” according to Davis – but most reviewers respond positively. Her production is “compelling” for Benjamin, and “visually striking and meticulous” for Cavendish.
She’s widely lauded for letting in the laughs. “For all its historical detail, Nadia Fall’s production is very much the comedy that Three Sisters is so rarely allowed to be,” writes Saville, with Crompton adding that “the comedy makes the tragedy weigh all the more heavily when it arrives”.
“The production looks utterly beautiful, too,” continues Crompton. “Katrina Lindsay’s set of a wide-verandaed house, that literally recedes from view into a screen of hanging ropes as the certainties of life vanish is magnificently achieved, and her costumes emphasise personality and mark change.”
“For many Nigerian-Britons living in the UK, the former Republic of Biafra – now split into several states within Nigeria – is where our parents called home,” concludes Benjamin. “It’s somewhere many of our grandparents fought to defend. There’s something incredibly powerful about seeing elements of our culture and heritage represented in Ellams’ stirring adaptation.”
The entire cast is ace, according to the critics. Billington writes of “a host of fine performances”, Crompton says “the entire cast shines”, and Benjamin calls the acting “uniformly excellent”.
“Niles, Simpson and Ofori beautifully embody the distinct energies of the sisters,” continues Benjamin. “Together, they form a pillar of strength and anchor the piece dramatically and emotionally.”
Niles has a “passionate grace” and “a seeping sense of loss” as Lolo, reckons Crompton, while Simpson “beautifully charts Nne Chukwu’s journey from elegant bitterness through passion released to utter despair” and Ofori “finds liveliness and hope in the youngest, saddest sister”.
Elsewhere, there is plenty of praise for Adekoluejo, who plays Abosede – the Nigerian version of Chekhov’s Natasha. She “has the right brashness” according to Billington, is alive with “sparkling malice” according to Crompton, and is “a magnificent, nonchalant monster” according to Curtis.
There are some negative reviews – notably a two-star rating from the Times – but this is a solid show on the whole, with poster-worthy four-star reviews from The Stage, WhatsOnStage, ArtsDesk and the Telegraph.
Ellams’ relocation of Three Sisters to 1960s Nigeria might make for some structural squiffiness, but it certainly succeeds in injecting energy into the play. Fall’s production is long, but graceful and funny, too, and her entire cast is applauded, with particular praise for Niles, Simpson, Ofori and Adekoluejo. Chekhov, it seems, stays sharp in the sweltering heat of sub-Saharan Africa.