Gbolahan Obisesan’s adaptation of Chigozie Obioma’s Man Booker Prize nominated The Fisherman, is the haunting tale of four brothers tragically separated by a curse. Set in Nigeria in the 90s, The Fishermen tells the story of four middle-class brothers who find themselves with more free time after their father moves to another city for work. They take to fishing in a forbidden river and eventually meet the ire of the village “mad man” with fatal consequences.
Framed by the reunion of brothers Ben (Michael Ajao) and Obembe (Valentine Olukoga), the two actors play all the characters in the story from their mother to the town’s old gossip who snitches on them, demonstrating awe-inspiring range. The play is saddening on so many levels, exploring the broken dreams of their parents, grief, loss, wasted potential and the destructiveness of vengeance. This is compounded by the very young age of the brothers and the innocence of their riverside mischief.
Ajao and Olukoga are breathtaking, hopping from character to character, adopting, at the drop of a hat, the dynamics of a bickering married couple, scheming brothers, and a desperate father searching for answers from a corrupt police officer. It’s an emotionally exhausting performance to witness; lord only knows how it must be to act it out. Every second of the hour-long performance is crammed with action, whether it be the silent discomfort of a nightmare, or the comically long-winded anecdotes of the boys’ mother who orders her husband to “let me land” when he threatens to cut her off. Obisesan’s adaptation ensures that the authenticity of the Nigerian voice at the centre of the narrative, is effortless preserved.
Amelia Jane Hankin’s stage is a lonely wooden island in the centre of the theatre; industrial looking metal poles protrude from it mimicking the curve of a river. At first the poles seem cage-like, an impenetrable barrier which separates the two brothers and becomes more porous as the play progresses.
Amy Mae’s lighting is a show stealer working with the actors to create some of the play’s most terrifying moments. The red lighting of the fatal curse scene sees Ajao’s Abulu transformed from the harmless “mad man” the children sought to mock, to a demon able to call on Hades himself to punish the children. Abulu, a man whose name struck terror into the boys’ own mother, contorts his body while screaming murderous curses and singing Ikenna’s name like a hellish lullaby, in the face of this Ikenna’s decline and paranoia seem almost understandable.
The Fishermen is difficult to watch and will be equally difficult to forget, as movement, lighting, acting and direction have melded together to create something rare in its tragic beauty.
The Fishermen is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 1 December 2018. For more information, click here.