REVIEW: ‘Three Sisters’ by Inua Ellams, after Chekhov

ow do you begin to describe a production that manages to package such a seismic event as the Nigerian Civil War into roughly 3 hours?

I guess one could start with one name: Inua Ellams. The author of ‘The Half God of Rainfall’ and the creative genius behind ‘Barbershop Chronicles’ (to name but a few of his artistic achievements) has produced the script for a land-mark production at the National Theatre that will have a knock-on effect on creators and theatre practitioners for years to come.

‘Three Sisters’ explores, at the heart of the UK and in one of its most respected establishments, the consequences of colonial rule, the continued influence of Western powers on African states, and the inner workings and conflicts between ‘Nigerians’ – a group of people that was denominated by foreign overlords.

The play is as much part of Nigerian history as it is part of British history. ‘Three Sisters’ by Inua Ellams shows us what history books and accounts should really look like, as it not only shines a critical eye on the legacies of colonialism and the Biafran conflict, but also delivers a seamless, nuanced and accessible lesson about Nigeria’s complex history. No attentive member of the audience could go home without knowing at least a little more about the history of Nigeria and Biafra than when they first came into the auditorium.

What is more is that ‘Three Sisters’ brilliantly and painfully explores the role of women in the Biafran conflict in particular, and in any other conflict in general. Ellams has based his play on work that has come before him, but he expertly and marvellously managed to make it his own, to make it his country’s own, to make it everyone’s own.

While the play itself is quite political throughout, it never loses sight of the fact that we are watching human beings with full and varied lives tell us their stories on stage. As the war approaches and subsequently tears the country known as Biafra apart, the characters’ stories and their sometimes seemingly petty or inconsequential worries also unfold before our eyes. In this sense, Ellams’ ‘Three Sisters’ puts a human and personal face on the often impersonal accounts about the Biafran conflict: we see how people’s lives were affected by the crisis, we see the characters cry and suffer, and we feel for them.

‘Three Sisters’ is an artistic feat, a production executed to the highest theatre standards and it is my hope that it will help re-open the conversation about the often-forgotten and dark years of the Nigerian Civil War, and prepare the terrain for true healing in the heart of the Nigerian nation and its people.