“I woke up without a single mosquito bite this morning,” declares the youngest of the titular trio of siblings brightly in this Chekhovian drama. That might not sound like the Russian master’s play as we know it – and that’s because this version, by Inua Ellams, transforms it into something that is at once faithful to the original and utterly fresh. Ellams relocates the action to Owerri, a Nigerian village, in the late 1960s, against a backdrop of bloody civil war and the brief secession of Biafra as an independent state. The result is full of vibrancy and texture, with an immediacy that, while it remains loyal, beat by beat, to Chekhov, makes every moment feel newly vital and vivid. Speeches of longing and nostalgia, anger, political dislocation, and fear for the future are suddenly set ablaze. And Nadia Fall’s production, although it runs to nearly three and a half hours, is embracing and engrossing, richly atmospheric and electrifyingly acted.
Katrina Lindsay’s evocative design creates a specific and absorbing sense of place, with its trailing creepers, swaying, sun-bleached grass and wide verandah leading to a spacious family home. Lighting designer Peter Mumford drenches it in golden rays or wreathes it in steamy nightfall. Donato Wharton’s sound is alive with chirping insects, the rustle of small nocturnal creatures and the beating of bird’s wings. A woman in traditional dress sings among the trees, which are haunted by the spirits of ancestors. There’s a dreamlike sequence, towards the desolate ending, when soldiers moving in slow motion seem not only like the forces of discord and destruction, but the spirits of the country’s unquiet past.
The sisters are young women living amid a turmoil that has its roots in that troubled history, the appalling and chaotic legacy of colonialism. Chekhov’s Masha becomes Nne Chukwu (Natalie Simpson), an image of cool 60s chic with her beehive hair and figure-hugging sleeveless frocks, who has mixed memories of the tumult of Lagos. Younger sibling Udo (Chekhov’s Irina, played by Racheal Ofori) is filled with yearning for glamour and big-city life, and struggles to suppress her vitality enough to accept the suitor who might be able to get it for her. Sarah Niles as the schoolteacher Lolo (originally Olga) is the most politicised of the three, furious that the curriculum she must follow in the classroom offers only the revisionist – and inaccurate – British view of her country and its people.
Ethnic and regional divisions add tension to the sisters’ dislike of their brother’s girlfriend and later wife, Abosede (a brilliant performance from Ronke Adekoleujo, whose spite is born of deep hurt and humiliation, her infidelity with a high-ranking official, while countless Biafrans are starved and slaughtered, a pragmatic matter of survival). The family are Igbo, Abosede Yoruba: the schisms that underlie the war – a direct product of British political and administrative interference – itself are reflected in the riven household. And there are other, penetrating new insights: the melancholy and helpless, smouldering frustration of Ken Nwosu’s charismatic Ikemba (Chekhov’s Vershinin) and Jude Akuwudike’s doctor Eze, who spent so much of his career stitching up British soldiers who despised and distrusted him; Sule Rimi as a volatile military veteran who’s threatening behaviour seems driven by trauma; Diana Yekinni as a young servant who makes money on the side singing and entertaining mercenaries, and who, when violence comes, acquires a gun and rushes headlong towards her own horrific and pointless end.
Yet for all that, Ellams manages, too, to capture something of Chekhov’s lightness: the melancholy humour that accompanies the tragic, the everyday friction and boredom as well as the cataclysm. It’s a huge, meaty work that takes some effort to chew and digest, especially as so much geopolitical drama unfolds offstage. But it is stirring, gripping stuff that both liberates the play and honours it, while simultaneously forging an existence as a powerful and significant new work in its own right.