Whilst the entirety of the Western world was caught up in the Summer of Love and protesting the war in Vietnam, Nigeria was disintegrating.
On the 30th May 1967, Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Military Governor of the Eastern Region of Nigeria, declared the republic of Biafra. In the early hours of 6th July 1967, Nigerian forces invaded Biafra and combat commenced.
This is the background to which the National Theatre’s acclaimed new reworking of Three Sisters is set. Written by Inua Ellams, this play is a fantastic exploration into an area of history that few in this country will know about, as well as a brilliant example of representation for black women in theatre. Women played many important roles in the violent history of Biafra/Nigeria, protesting the taxation by the British empire, working tirelessly for the Biafran Red Cross and feeding the soldiers. Chekhov’s tale of internalised conflict, the longing to be in a place you are not, really is the perfect story to use to tell the tale of this devastating conflict.
The heart-wrenching story of Lolo, Nne Chukwu and Udo sees them dealing with the grief of losing their father, conflicts within their family, and conflicts within themselves as they long to return to their hometown, which is no longer part of their country. The script is superb, the acting is out of this world, and I didn’t feel the 3hours+ running time at all. I left the theatre feeling like I’d learned something about the world which I didn’t know going in (my world history is sketchy at best). But the overwhelming feeling I had was a sense of sisterhood.
Of course, it’s based on a Chekhov play, so the ending is not happy. But I felt the weight of the sisters’ grief in a way I have not after other productions of this play. I think the three actresses (Sarah Niles, Racheal Ofori and Natalie Simpson) deserve most of the credit for this. They all blew me away with their portrayal of complex and layered emotions – longing pulling them in different directions and ultimately leading to their downfall.
The first half is much longer than the second, leaving the culmination of the war and the violence in the play’s climax feeling a little rushed. But the first half is so strong – it really builds up all the characters’ relationships so I felt like I was part of the family. The devastation of the second half comes more from the breakdown of relationships than the progression of war, and some rebalancing of the plot may have prevented this feeling rushed. However, I wouldn’t want to sacrifice any of the first half in order to do this, so maybe it was necessary?!
I laughed throughout (wincing as the comic relief ultimately turns dark in the second half), cried at the ending, and grew to love and root for these characters as the play progressed. This was as close to perfect theatre I have seen in a really long time.