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Theatre Three Sisters, Lyttelton, National Theatre

Nigerian civil war retelling of Chekhov classic is a real coup

ANTON Chekhov's classic play has been transported from mid-19th century Russia to 1960s Nigeria, a country in the midst of the Biafran civil war, in this captivating retelling by Inua Ellams.

His version of the three sisters are Lolo, Nne Chukwu and Udo, the Igbo daughters of the revolution who have fled Lagos to the Biafran capital Owerri in the south of Nigeria.

Mourning the loss of their father, who was apparently something of a leader for the Biafran cause, the trio romanticise about returning to Lagos while youngest Udo (Racheal Ofori), who is clearly at a loss to the point of the war, longs to find purpose in life.

The Biafran civil war (From 1967 to 1970), which saw the secession of Biafra from Nigeria as its own West African state, was very much a product of the fallout from British decolonisation and Nigeria's independence in 1960.

Economic and ethnic tensions led to riots in the north of Nigeria culminating in an Igbo-led military coup in January 1966, which saw the assassination of Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa alongside other senior politicians. However, retribution came just six months later with a counter coup by Nigerian forces.

Given the complexities of such a backdrop in which to stage a version of the Three Sisters, Ellams' play directed by Nadia Fall is impressive in its ambition to say the least.

In Chekhov's original, the lives of the three sisters are rooted in Russian high society where barely anything happens beyond their own small and self-indulgent existence. Here though, the three sisters are survivors of a bitter conflict during one of the most tumultuous periods in Nigeria's history. This in itself is no doubt a nod to the role that the women of Biafra played in the civil war.

Running at over three hours, this epic staging is however largely true to the original when it comes to the various personal relationships.

Thus eldest sister Lolo (Sarah Niles) is the teacher who becomes a headmistress at the end of the play, Nne Chukwu (Natalie Simpson) is unhappily married and has an affair while their brother Dimgba's (Tobi Bamtefa) wife Abosede (Ronke Adekoluejo) is the destructive force that threatens to tear the family apart.

Ellams also brilliantly interweaves plenty of humour in what is essentially a tragedy about a country torn in two. A real coup of a production.

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