24 July 2018.
Set in a small Nigerian town, Chigozie Obioma’s novel The Fishermen tells the story of four young brothers whose lives are turned upside down following an incident on a fishing trip. Such excursions are forbidden by their parents, but they surreptitiously set off in the hope of catching something from the polluted waters of the local river. Instead they encounter a ‘madman’ who predicts a terrible event, and from this point on their lives begin to unravel.
Gbolahan Obisesan’s lean and lithe adaptation transforms Obioma’s character-filled family drama into an emotionally charged dialogue between two of the brothers. The play begins as they are reunited after eight years apart, and they reflect on the sequence of events that led up to their separation. Not so much haunted by their past as possessed by it, they begin to adopt the personas of the various people who emerge within their recollections. It is in one sense a game. “That’s not how I remember her. Maybe drop your hip?” they say as they try to recapture the essence of their mother. Yet it is also touching as they find joy in the recreated sound of their parents’ voices or thoughts of their siblings. Though the story is told entirely from their perspective, this never feels forced or limiting. Memories are dredged up and retold in a casual conversational manner, “Remember you were 8?” one brother begins, only to be corrected by the other “I was 9!”.
As their story grows, the cast of characters expands – an enthusiastic fisherman, a gossipy neighbour, a corrupt policeman, a pastor and even some chickens – and the brothers slip in and out of the various roles.
This narrative device places huge responsibility on the two actors, but Michael Ajao and Valentine Olukoga not only rise to the challenge but seem to relish it. As well as capturing the distinctive characters of brothers Benjamin (Ajao) and Obembe (Olukoga), they both quickly sketch out and then add texture to a whole range of supporting characters with just a change of voice, a shift in posture or an occasional improvised prop. The ease with which they appear to do this is deceptive. There is a subtle art in their ability to act out the brothers settling into, and making adjustments to, the roles of other family members. With great skill and control of energy they become someone new in the time it takes to put one foot in front of the other, and can even pass someone’s story baton-like to each other in mid-flow. They are astonishingly good, comfortable with both humour and hubris, as they surge back and forward through time.
Obioma’s novel is firmly rooted within the social and historical context of its Nigerian setting. The play however seems less anchored and, while it’s still explicitly within Nigeria, the story’s universal elements are foregrounded.
There’s a strong focus on the dynamics of family, including parental expectations. In their mother’s eyes, the four boys are ‘princes’, and their father has their futures mapped out for them already. They will be nothing less than “doctors, lawyers, professors”. However, familial ties also drive more destructive behaviours, with the two brothers feeling honour-bound to avenge the ill fortune that befell their older siblings, “our brothers would never forgive us, we’d never be free”.
Actions are seen to have consequences, and things quickly escalate as violence begets more violence. It’s a bloody and messy tale, riddled with acts of revenge and blighted by extreme tragedy. At times, despite the intimacy of the staging, events feel almost biblical in scale.
It all plays out on a circular wooden platform, sinuously split into two parts like a yin-yang symbol. Two halves, one whole. Two brothers, one family. The past and the present. Both different yet inter-connected. A sequence of metal poles flows spikily through the space. Although each is affixed to the floor, they are not static – they sway gently, withstand being pushed wide apart or are plucked from their moorings to be used as fishing rods. The stark minimal beauty of Amelia Jane Hankin’s set is complemented by Amy Mae’s hugely atmospheric lighting, and the pulsing, rhythmic sound design and distinctive use of movement adds to the sensuous but unsettling feel.
As the play progresses. the squandered opportunities and wasted lives pile up, creating a sense of a world out of kilter. Director Jack McNamara sustains the increasingly harrowing tension to its crushing conclusion.
It’s a production blessed with much to admire and it artfully pulls you into its increasingly murky depths. With its impressive design, sharp direction, elegantly honed script and hugely accomplished performances, The Fishermen is a powerful and thrilling piece of theatre.
In spite of the tale’s tragic trajectory, the play’s structure accommodates a glimmer of hope. “After you’d gone I was no longer myself”, says Benjamin. As they look back with hindsight, over the events that led to their current fates, he and Obembe re-establish their fraternal bond. Significantly, Obisesan’s adaptation begins with a peace-offering and ends with a touching moment of togetherness. As the brothers revisit their family’s dreadful misfortune together, the process of story-telling gradually becomes both an act of catharsis and a journey of reconciliation.
Images by Pamela Raith.