Welcome to The Republic of Biafra, 1967. A nation many have longed for, and a nation many are prepared to fight for – a chance to right the colonial wrongs of the past and forge a clear path ahead.
Inua Ellams’ play is passionate, disarmingly funny, and deeply moving.
Inua Ellams’ play is passionate, disarmingly funny, and deeply moving. It is not a re-telling of Chekhov’s play by the same name – it is a total reimagining. Of course, comparisons can be made between the two plays but by no means are they essential to the understanding and enjoyment of either. Spatially, Ellams places his narrative in a West African idyll that is ancient and vast, replete with its own temperature, long grass and birdsong. Thematically, Ellams’ script touches upon the bonds of sisterhood and the politics of suffering (as with Chekhov) but (unlike Chekhov) drills the core of its narrative energy into exploring what goes into making (or toppling) a nation state. Three Sisters is an unflinching analysis of the colonial damage Britain and other nations have inflicted across endless African locales, cultural identities, and religions.
The titular sisters are Lolo (Chloe Okora), Nne (Natalie Simpson), and Udo (Racheal Ofori), united by familial bonds, and the emerging dream of a land which is theirs. Ellams play has a large cast, including a tight ensemble who deliver transitions that hint at some of the destruction elsewhere. Nadia Fall’s direction shines as she delivers domestic spaces. Moments of peace are haunted by anxiety and although the family is strong, many of the domestic spaces feel toe-curlingly delicate. Legacies are beautifully outlined and represented in both Ellams script and Fall’s delivery of it.
Ken Nwosu plays a powerful Ikemba, who has to deal with both the brutality and bureaucracy of war. Peter Bankolé portrays an earnest intelligence officer who softens as the play unfolds into inevitable tragedy. Fall directs character development with the same careful grace that she delivers domestic fraughtness. Katrina Lindsay’s expansive set reflects Ellams’ Biafra with imposing beauty. Three Sisters is an expansively talented, major achievement.
Momentum in the first act is sublime, but pace does occasionally falter in the second. Ellams’ script cherishes the ideal of a homeland, and yet never lets up on an acerbic and accurate commentary that presents how impossible forming a new nation-state is in the face of often savage geopolitical manoeuvring. Millions died of starvation in the collapse of Biafra and Ellams states clearly that these deaths were engineered. These messages are coherent, complex, and unified across the set design and direction.
Three Sisters delivers a great fall as a sequence of minute, almost imperceptible, landslides. It is an immense and vast piece of theatre which educates as well as entertains. A unique reimagining of an outdated text, which delivers far more than its titular source, and resonates with a fraught and agonised power today.