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Double Review: ‘3 Sisters’ and ‘My Brilliant Friend’ at London’s National Theater

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In transposing Chekhov’s 3 Sisters from 1900s Russia to 1960’s Nigeria, poet and playwright Inua Ellams has given the much-performed play new resonance rarely seen on a London stage.

And so the Prozorov siblings – Olga, Marsha, Irina and Andrey are now Lolo, Nne Chukwu, Udo and Dimgba – Igbo’s who have fled Lagos (at the time the nation’s capital) for Owerri in secessionist Biafra. The Nigerian army, supported by British weaponry, is determined to win back control of the oil-rich Biafran states. A food blockage leads to starvation and aerial bombings weaken the ill-equip army.

Circumstances may differ in Ellam’s version – and second play for the National Theater after 2017’s Barbershop Chronicles – but both sets of characters’ aspirations are philosophically the same. Chekov’s own original dialogue receives equal weight and equal laughs Ellam’s own additions.

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A newcomer to the play will struggle to tell Chekov’s well-used text from Ellam’s inventions, except for explicit references of British colonial greed and particularly Nigeria’s fight for independence and its suppression of Biafra’s quest for self-nationhood.

These weighty political debates are balanced by pointed jokes, one of which about the prospect of a “black” member of the royal family someday ascending to the British throne, drew big laughs and thankfully wasn’t developed any further. Period details are few but effective. A Ludo board game is brandished but unused, Nne Chukwu is seen reading Elechi Aladi’s “The Concubine” publishing success in 1966 and the costumes do recall the uniforms of the Nigerian/ Biafran army.

A committed ensemble performance often sparkles with individual brilliance not least from Jude Akuwudike (Eze) as the failed doctor; Rachel Ofori (Udo) as the youngest sibling whose longing for Lagos and love never deteriorates into petulance; Ken Nwosu (Ikemba), in voice control and gravitas, is the embodiment of military professionalism; while Sara Niles (Lolo)’s compelling authority as an aging spinster and headteacher tasked with creating a new national curriculum.

Chekov’s original has been “adapted to [for] a British audience but never situated within British history,” said the writer in a YouTube interview with the director Nadia Fall. This clear reference to the relegation of “colonial history” from the higher breeches of
“true history” is a power boost that injects new historical relevance to the play. But then subtitling any new version as “After Chekov” is also a safety valve that allows one to be inventive on one’s own terms, to one’s own brilliance and limitations.

In “My Brilliant Friend”, players April de Angelis has rendered all four of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels – “My Brilliant Friend”, “The Story Of A New Name”, “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” and “The Story Of The Lost Child” – in completely theatrical terms that bear few hangovers of their origins as masses of prose.

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The first and titular book – “My Brilliant Friend” – is 336 pages long in paperback, 12 hours and 38 minutes on Audible but no more than 1 hour 20 minutes in de Angelis’ adaptation for London’s National’s Theater stage (until February 22nd).

Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels primarily charts the lives of Lenu (played by Niamh Cusack) and Lila (played by Catherine McCormack), from preteens to sexagenarians. They are narrated exclusively by the former Lenu whose success as a serious but sensationalised novelist, her relegation to domesticity after marriage to a self-absorbed professor, eventual divorce and affair with a married man (Nino, a savant turn establishment figure) all makes for a richly troubled life in any serialised form.

But Lila is the grist; she is the gist. If writing frankly about sex and leaving her marriage for a new life with a (still) married man is the most disruptive Lenu proves to be, Lila’s singularity is crystallised in an exchange between her and Nino (during which he insists on the fundamental importance of taxation for a society. This Lila dismisses as improbable since the rich will never cede power neither will the poor agree to any raised limits on their progress. The direct currents of each of their lives is ever quickened by their tied fates long decided by birth and circumstance – as by shared adolescence as it is an adult decision to remain, friends, however estranged.

Chief of Ferrante’s attributes as a novelist is “story-ing”. Her multiple characters and multitude of backstories is no big feat for playwright April de Angelis who has expertly condensed the expository that is not unique to Ferrante’s prose. In director Melly Still’s production, mobile staircases allude to tenements crammed with other lifes. A car trip to Florence is denoted by a pair of square boxed lights; flowing sheets take the place of the seaside; toddlers are played by adults dressed in a child’s dungarees but when a little older, are played by puppets; and sex acts are often presented as joyless, perfunctory engagements where the woman’s body own satisfaction isn’t prioritised.

In the few scenes depicting rape, director Still draws back from overdramatised verisimilitude. Instead, spotlights and audience’s eyes are lead to follow a silent, female actor move a replica dress about – a most sensitive and inventive depiction of rape yet seen on a London stage.

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