By Suzanne Gannon
One of the changes that the lockdown has brought is an increase in online viewing subscriptions. The National Theatre, like most creative venues is offering their archive of plays to the public via their “National Theatre at Home”. One of their plays on offer is a brilliant production from 2019 by Inua Ellams called “Three Sisters” https://www.ntathome.com/three-sisters. Structured along the lines of Chekhov’s play by the same name, it is set in the provincial village of Owerri in East Nigeria over a three-year period from 1967–1970. Their military general father had located his family there from Lagos, as he anticipated the country being plunged into more chaos after 100,000 Igbo people had been massacred in pogroms following a coup and counter-coup.
Set against the background of the social and political conflict and change within Nigeria and the continuing malign influence of European imperialism on the African subcontinent, the opening of the play expresses optimism for a better future and nationalist hope. At the time the play is set, direct colonial rule had ended, but the control of foreign capital and power continued to shape the lives of Nigerians. The initial optimism for the future once Biafra declares itself an independent state is inevitably thwarted, fuelled by foreign intervention and the legacy of colonialism. The play uses the family as a microcosm of society, poetically charting how the complex relationships and misdirected affections of the characters mirror the disappointment of the rebel soldiers.
The father of the family died a year before the start of the play, leaving the house he built to his children – three daughters and a son. The sisters long to return to Lagos, dreaming of it in idyllic terms; their brother has rooted himself in the village, marrying a local woman. This marriage causes a good amount of dramatic tension in the play as the sister-in-law is Yoruba, while the others are Igbos, highlighting the tension that the British caused in cobbling together so many disparate tribes in their colonisation and subsequent creation of the state of Nigeria.
The youngest daughter just wants to have a “purpose” in her life; the middle daughter wants something more than the dead marriage that was arranged for her at puberty; the eldest daughter is the most politically astute of all the characters and despairs at the political ignorance of those shaping the direction of the new country and the continuing yoke they have to their colonial past masters (she is angry that the curriculum she is forced to teach has been written by the white colonists, who claim to have “discovered” the Niger Delta); their brother becomes a pawn, caught in a marriage that highlights the problems tribal and class divisions have created. All the characters are educated to degree level and beyond, and middle class, save for one of the young soldiers hoping to convince the youngest sister to marry him and the Yoruba sister-in-law, who is treated disdainfully throughout, but who is possibly the only character to have gained rather than lost by the end of the play.
The tensions of the ongoing war, the familial tensions and tribal tensions all encroach on the supposed safe haven of the middle-class home their father built. The play ends with none of their promises or dreams being even remotely fulfilled. The Igbo troops have surrendered and all the family face desolation of one sort or another. Indeed, towards the end, one of the characters says: “When news broke of surrender, there was no celebration. Everyone lost.”
Throughout the play, the sisters pose existential questions that recall Chekov’s original play: Does their suffering has any meaning? Are they really building a better world? What has all their education has been good for? (Their uncle was trained as a medical doctor in the UK, but as a black man was considered “too animalistic” to practise medicine there. He served as an army medic, but has since lost any ability to practise his craft. The brother trained in languages and longed to be an academic, but ends up as a secretary to one of the generals.)
Katrina Lindsay’s set and costume design has created a compelling atmosphere that becomes part of the creative narrative, and which changes in harmony with the play’s events. Peter Mumford’s lighting choices beautifully augment this atmospheric mood. At the start of the play, the family home is luxuriously bathed in golden light, with yellow grass before it. In the first act we are outside the house, on its porch, and then move to an interior scene: both scenes highlighted the middle class standing of the family. Inside there is Western-style furniture, a bar, a piano and other musical instruments. As the war moves closer to the family, the set becomes misty, illuminated with a darker bluish-black light. A dangling rope curtain serves to separate the grassy area from the house, with people on the porch and inside the house as shadows. In the final scene, we are in the tall grass beyond the house.
The costumes follow a similar narrative sequence. In the opening scenes the sisters are dressed in contemporary Western clothing, including miniskirts, and they mock their sister-in-law for dressing in an African version of a Western miniskirt outfit. When the action moves inside the house, the sister-in-law is dressing in the same way as the other sisters. But by the time the war reaches them, the three sisters are dressed in traditional African wraps and the sister-in-law is wearing more elaborate African garb. In the final scene, all three sisters are once again dressed in Western dresses, only this time they are all in white – perhaps to symbolise that Biafra (and their dreams) have been erased. Their sister-in-law, in contrast, is now dressed as a tribal queen, replete with a headdress. The acts are evocatively broken by a one-woman Greek chorus-type processional, singing or reciting what I can only suspect are Igbo tribal laments. Nadia Fall’s direction makes the whole play an immersive experience.
If you get a chance, do give this a watch. It is a play that will move you emotionally and educate you about the sordid history of European imperialism raping the African subcontinent. To appreciate this version of “Three Sisters”, you don’t have to know anything about Chekhov’s original play, nor even the history of Nigeria. The play will leave you wanting to learn more about the role of the British in the Biafran genocide in our not-too-distant past. That’s exactly what I did after viewing it. I found it sad to hear the playwright, Inua Ellams, say that he didn’t think the play would be able to be performed in Nigeria, as the causes of their Civil War and the Biafran genocide are still contentious and not even taught in their schools. I also found it interesting (and disappointing) to read this article about the Labour Party’s collusion in colonialism and support for international capital (in the form of oil) in Nigeria https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-04-29-how-britains-labour-government-facilitated-the-massacre-of-biafrans-in-nigeria-to-protect-its-oil-interests/.