‘Three Sisters’ – A Nigerian Retelling
O

ne hundred and twenty years since Anton Chekhov wrote ‘Three Sisters’, I went to see a production of its most recent adaptation, written by the one and only Inua Ellams. This is not the first time that ‘Three Sisters’ has been adapted. In 1998, it premiered at the Opéra National de Lyon as a full-length opera called ‘Tri Sestry’, composed by Péter Eötvös a Hungarian composer. Inua is no stranger to the stage in general and the National Theatre in particular. His play, ‘Barber Shop Chronicles’ debuted at the National Theatre before going on to complete two sell-out runs – at the same theatre – and a world tour. My first encounter with Inua’s work came when I read ‘The Half God of Rainfall’, but there’s something about seeing ‘Three Sisters’ at the National Theatre, that is hard to describe in words. In Inua’s retelling, Russia becomes Biafra, the Prozorovs become the Onuzos, Moscow becomes Lagos, and the town fire becomes the Nigerian Civil War. To have seen this exactly fifty years after the end of the Civil War, was in itself, remarkable.

In Inua’s retelling, Russia becomes Biafra, the Prozorovs become the Onuzos, Moscow becomes Lagos, and the town fire becomes the Nigerian Civil War. To have seen this exactly fifty years after the end of the Civil War, was in itself, remarkable.

As an indigene of the South Eastern region of Nigeria, I belong to a generation that is too young to have experienced the Biafran War first hand but too old to not know enough about the mark it has left on the country that would be Nigeria. Given the historical relevance of the war, one would imagine that, at the very least, it must be taught in schools, but with the exception of works from literary icons such as Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, and now Inua Ellams, the stories of the Biafran War are known for not being told enough – not in schools, not on the page, and not on stage – especially when compared to other wars of similar proportion. It is therefore no surprise that Inua Ellams’ ‘Three Sisters’, received a lot of cerebral reception, because in a world like ours, where forgetting seems to be the norm, the mere act of remembering can be seen as an act of revolution.

[…] in a world like ours, where forgetting seems to be the norm, the mere act of remembering can be seen as an act of revolution.

‘Three sisters’ is a story that most people should find easy to relate to. It is a retelling of a 20th century classic that brings together cautionary tales from real historical events. It’s a story of love and loss. It’s not so much a story of the Biafran War as it is a story of hope, survival, and courage in the face of adversity. It follows the lives of three sisters as they fight for their survival in a country that they love but doesn’t love them back – a country where people like them are either persecuted because of their ethnicity or marginalised because of their gender. Set in Owerri, over the course of the Biafran War, this adaptation explores the roles that the West played in the war, the deep rooted effects of colonialism, and the temporary wartime alliances that blurred the tribal lines that the war was fought along. It embodies the hope of a people that refused to stop fighting even when defeat was imminent. 

‘Three Sisters’ is a play that speaks to the universality of struggle and the complexities of identity.

What makes this play most remarkable is perhaps the fact that it doesn’t feel like a Nigerian retelling of a Russian play. It feels like a Nigerian story in its own right – one told from a Nigerian perspective, and based on real experiences from a not so distant past. Indeed, there were times when Chekhov got in the way a bit, but for the most part, Inua breathes new life into the play – teleporting it from pre-revolutionary Russia to post-independent Nigeria. With a mixture of funny and heartbreaking scenes, and with universal themes like love, hope, and a longing for happiness laced throughout its acts, Inua ensures that his rendition of the play, while unmistakably Nigerian, will be relatable to as wide an array of people as can be seen in London today.

It embodies the hope of a people that refused to stop fighting even when defeat was imminent.

‘Three Sisters’ is a play that speaks to the universality of struggle and the complexities of identity. It’s a tragedy that’s never short of comedy, and a story that is based on reality. In reality, the Biafran War was a tragic affair. A line was drawn and the fates of millions were effectively tied to what side of that line they lived. As such, not every villain was from the North and not every victim was from the South East – an essence that is well captured in this play. ‘Three Sisters’ is a story about people, family, sisters, and women. Those from provincial Russia and those from secessionist Biafra. Those who exist but remain unseen, those who speak but remain unheard, those who have “lived through so much suffering, who survived, but never knew happiness.” May we know them, may we honour them, but most of all, may we remember them. 

May we know them, may we honour them, but most of all, may we remember them.

…and to Inua Ellams, Nadia Fall, and the rest of the company, we say thank you. Very well done. The show may be over, but the memories have just begun.