Written by Chigozie Obioma
Adapted by Gbolahan Obisesan
Directed by Jack McNamara
This new play is deftly adapted for the stage by Gbolahan Obisesan. It is an impressive feat to so effectively condense a 300 page epic book filled with rich, colourful characters into a two-hander play. Under the skilful and passionate direction of Jack McNamara it becomes a triumph and absolute joy to behold. The innocence of boyhood and filial loyalty is portrayed alongside the bloody horrors of a descent into madness, murder and mayhem that eventually culminates in a sense of fortitude and redemption. This is story telling at its very best, drawing you in and staying with you long after you leave the theatre.
The two actors give a tightly choreographed performance that keenly evokes the familiarity of brotherly bonds. The two youngest brothers of the Agwu family are reconnecting for the first time in eight years and Michael Ajao as Ben and Valentine Olukoga bring their acting “A” game, all hopeful yearning and bruised wariness. What follows is their recalling of their childhood in a stable family unit with ambitious parents, big brothers, football, fishing and village life in Nineties Nigeria. Fracturing this idyll like the spikes of the metal poles cutting through the stage, is the horror of a prophecy from a local madman which plunged their world into a Shakespearean tragedy.
Ajao and Olukoga channel the rest of their parents and brothers, the madman Abula, the meddling nosy neighbour and even the chickens and fish. All are brought to life on stage with a fluidity and energy that seems inexhaustible. Both actors inhabit each role with ease. Olukoga has all the stubbornness and mischief of a 10 year old, the bluster and patriarchal confidence of a man who sired four sons destined for success, yet can suddenly vividly evoke a flustered chicken in a coop. Ajao can physically transform from sweet young boy to an embittered, traumatised youth, then undergoing metamorphosis into his indignant, bossy mother and later descending into her grief stricken madness. He can delight when twitching and jerking as a fish on the riverbank and truly terrify and chill as he delivers the doom laden prophecy of Abula.
The set design by Amelia Jane Hankin works wonderfully. The simple dais cut through by the actual river is symbolic of past and present, and of the living and the dead. Metal poles are props but also stakes running through this river of blood and through the hearts of this family and symbolic of the lost promise of Nigeria itself. The combination of lighting by Amy Mae and sound by Adam McCready ramp up the drama in the narrative creating a sense palpable tension as they pulsate in time to the actor’s movements on stage. They create a stop/start dance of violence with startling intensity but also evoke the peaceful idyll of the moonlit night surrounded by the chirp of crickets.
The Fishermen is a truly intimate theatre experience that explores both the strength of familial relationships and the vulnerability that runs through every family. The tragedy of Agwu family is epic and the stuff of nightmares, yet scratch the surface of any family and the ghosts that appear may be also be bruised and bloody. Theirs is a story of Shakespearean proportions with children at the core of violence; it is a sobering thought that just this month 180 traumatized child soldiers from the Boka Haram were returned to the care of Nigeria and The United Nations.