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In the end what was it for and why?
Stories of the Biafra war is one I heard growing up; my grand parents having lived through it- both Yoruba and Igbo origin. Stories of hope and pain; it is hard not to interlace the two with regards to this conflict. The idea though noble was doomed to fail not least because it preyed on a cultural divide that remains evident today. A newly independent nation forging its own history whilst still shrouded in British imperialism and a deep traditional chasm.
Inua Ellams interpretation of Chekovs’ Three Sisters, is a refresh of a classic masterpiece, that only enhances the versatility of narrative done right. Set against the backdrop of the Biafra Secession in Nigeria, it is an ambitious task that is for the most part successful. Lolo; a teacher, Nne Chukwu; an unhappily married housewife and Udo; the dreamy youngest sister, amidst the raging war between the east and the rest of Nigeria, deal with personal struggles whilst facing the reality of what is to come- a civil war that threatens to tear down all they hold dear, their hopes of returning to Lagos; the vibrant city unfortunately located in the South from where the igbos seek separation. This is even more of a conundrum considering their brother is dating a Yoruba girl who ironically ends up being the breadwinner of a family she is not truly welcomed in, albeit through her own affair with an influential general in the Biafra army. She is Nigerian, they are Biafran.
This is a play of conflicts; ironically and quite literally, and for the most part it is a theme that is well interlaced in every scenario. It falls flat in pockets of the narrative; there are pivotal moments in the play that seem to fade into the rear as the war looms larger, the narrative gets lost in the kerfuffle. Nne Chukwu, unhappy in a marriage that was arranged from the age of twelve to a man who her older sister, Lolo had affections for ( or did they? that part in the story gets an unfair dismissal), starts an affair doomed to fail with a family friend and member of the Biafran army, whilst Udo sees her dreams of returning to Lagos and a marriage that feels more like settling rather than beloved, dashed in a folly between men; it’s a naïveté full of life that crumbles amidst its bigger plot lines. Yet the lead up to the reveal is master stroke in story telling. The appearance of a traditional prophetess in the beginning tells of what is to come, creates an aura of doom to an audience, who mostly have no idea what she is saying, she soliloquises in igbo, yet understand the implied through the use of lighting, sound and her movements on stage.
At the heart of it, this is story about women, a relationship between the sisters in a world unraveling around them in the wake of their father’s passing. It all seems promising but the reality is nothing of the sort and their legacy is given foolishly to Abosédë, by a brother whose own male privilege sees him as head of the household; an intellectual without any savvy. Lolo is the true intellectual here. able to understand the pitfalls of the Biafra war and the influence of the British imperialism in a new Nigeria.
The set is vivid in its depiction and Nadia Falls does the production much honour in marrying Nigeria in the sixties whilst using imagery to inform on the colonial influence in lifestyle through different characters. Most important it serves as a history lesson of the sorts on Biafra, the tragedy that it was to those who knew nothing and those of us who’d heard the stories from those who lived it. The sharp contrast between the three main tribes of Nigeria as seen by the characters only heightens the feeling of tension and the British role in conflict is brought to us through dialogue that renders a fraction of the pain that must have been felt by those who had to live it and relive it.
Showing @ the Lyttelton Theatre, South Bank until 19th of February 2020