Returning to her old work place, Emma Bentley watches the rehearsals of Three Sisters at the National Theatre and hears from
Writer and Director, Inua Ellams and Nadia Fall about adapting one of Chekhov’s most famous plays.
I walk into Rehearsal Room 1 at the National Theatre and despite only being 9.30am, it’s already buzzing with energy. Earlier on, I popped into the Espresso Bar to grab a coffee and told my old colleagues I’d be sneaking into rehearsals with the cast and none other than Writer, Inua Ellams and Director, Nadia Fall of Three Sisters. They’re a bit jealous to say the least. On the scale set of the Lyttelton stage, there are some brilliant 1960s furniture pieces and on the tables along the front of the room, coffees are being drunk whilst important decisions are being made by the creative team. Two musicians, Adedeji Adetayo and Femi Temowo are in the corner; both will later be seen performing the opening number with Sarah Niles, Racheal Ofori and Natalie Simpson: the three sisters themselves.
Ellams starts off by briefly sharing the process of adapting arguably, Chekhov’s most famous play. “I’ve kind of deconstructed and reconstructed the play within the Biafran war, which happened between the years of 1967 and 1970.” For those of us who are White British, the Biafran war will likely be something many are unfamiliar with, and it turns out many Nigerians born post-1970, have also not heard of it. Even though an estimated 1 to 6 million people died, (official death toll figures have never been released), it is rarely talked about. Fall remarks; “when you say Biafra, people think it’s a disease, and I just think, well that is crazy considering this is a war in people’s memory.”
Discussing how close Ellams’ Three Sisters is to Chekhov’s original text, the writer describes himself as a self-confessed “nerd and a geek.” He found Igbo names, (the Nigerian language of Ellams’ version) to mean the same as Chekhov’s Olga, Masha and Irina, but in order to tell his own story, Ellams has shifted the intentions of the play. “Chekhov’s play was about existentialism and mine is about the search for purpose.” He remarks how the setting of the war has also “raised the stakes.” Whilst talking us through the adaption process, he almost makes Chekhov sound like a living writer. “His was set four years before the Russian revolution so there was this sense of impending doom, and mine is set during the Biafran war, so you have the flames, and the temperatures just rise.”
As a male writer, we might question the reasoning behind Ellams adapting one of Chekhov’s most female centred plays; he admits “I have three sisters myself.” In a self-depreciating way, he says “I thought I can just write about my sisters if push came to shove and a lot of the characters are based on elements of my three sisters.” They are coming over to see the show from Nigeria and will apparently be looking for themselves in the characters, if, as Ellams says, “I’ve done my job correctly.” He confesses he has written himself into the play as the character of the only brother, Andre. Renamed Dingba in his version, this character is a sort of “jack of all trades”; an attribute Ellams thinks is one he shares.
Although the historical context of this production could potentially be the main focus of the play, instead both Ellams and Fall seem to be focused on making this show about raw human emotions. Fall says, “it’s about that human ache, those things, wherever you’re from, whoever you are, you’ve lost someone, or you have a problem with your mother or your father or your sister.” Ellams is drawn to adapt a classic so that he can “work out how to further localise it and make it pertinent and contemporary.”
There is a strong political angle to the production – even to the grey haired, stalls seated, white middle-class audiences of the National who might be wondering what this version has got to do with them. Fall explains this “isn’t just a Nigerian or an African history. It’s a British one as well, because it’s an ex-colonial country and they had their fingers in the pie too, as the British have in many ex-colonies.” Fall is so refreshing to be around. She speaks with power and hope for the future of artists of colour. She points out, “I think there’s a big gesture – an artistic one, but also a political one when an artist of colour takes up the main spaces in, for instance, the Lyttelton and Olivier and that’s a really important gesture that we bring our own personality; our own culture to.”
Ellams is also particularly passionate about continuing the work that he started with the co-producers of this show, Fuel, in the act of having Three Sisters staged at the National. He reveals that “one of the reasons we categorically refused to let Barbershop go to the West End is we knew that tickets would be 60, 70, 100 pounds.”
As well as having his producer hat on, Ellams shows us that deep down he is a playful and collaborative artist. He talks about the rehearsal process as a “bloodbath” of sorts, with questions about the script coming from all directions. As a writer, I am fascinated about how he describes his process. “You write from instincts and part of the rehearsal process is understanding which of those instincts are pure and came through right, and which are cloaked and unclear, and there’s a letting go and a shedding back and so this has been incredibly exciting, revealing and vulnerable for me as a writer.”
Ellams adds that through redrafting, “the play is shorter and leaner and faster and more emotionally rich and raw.” Forget any of the dusty adaptations that have come before of Three Sisters. At the end of our visit, as we get to watch the actors rehearse the opening of the play and belt out ‘Baby Love’ by The Supremes, I would go as far as to say that this will be a show that British Theatre will remember for a long time to come.