Emerging from a brief hiatus, the literary canon has benefited from an extraordinary output by African authors, notably seen in the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Yaa Gyasi, and, most significantly for this particular production, Chigozie Obioma. The works are nuanced, as distinct and richly patterned as the continent, but together generate a powerful cachet that can be well-translatable to the stage. Thus, when a Man Booker prize-nominated novel like The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, meets the theatrical adaptation of its same name, a powerful alchemy develops, heightened in potency by the outstanding duel performances of Michael Ajao and Valentine Olukogo.
That chemistry percolates between Ajoa and Olukogo as they alone divide the labyrinthine family tree portrayed in the 400-page saga. Character switches are clean and bracing, done in rapid succession so as to keep the audience in thrall. In essence, they track the story of four brothers growing up in a small Nigerian village in the mid-1990s, whose lives are upended by a fateful prophecy. Their father has pinned his hopes to crawl out from beneath the debris of the Biagra civil war on erudite professions for each of the boys: a doctor, a lawyer, a professor and a pilot. Yet, instead of studying, they regress into lazy days spent fishing and playing soccer. It is here on the banks of the forbidden river where a mad man predicts that one of the boys will die at the hands of his brother. When it transpires, the loss of innocence rapidly takes its toll and we see each boy suffer a gruesome ending, from suicide, to imprisonment, to exile. It is not unlike a New Testament parable in its moral telling, only darker. Obioma’s story reminds you here that the ties of familial responsibility follow or even haunt everyone through life, with each action you take having profound and unforetold effects that ripple throughout the years.
Complementing the stripped-down performance is the staging; a curve of tall PVC pipes standing on their ends, propped up by sand bags. The design is meant to mimic the bars of a jail cell that one of the brothers now sits behind, while the other is free, returned from years on the run. The pipes are plucked up by the characters on stage and transformed to what is needed at that moment – a fishing pole or a weapon. It’s an imaginative and surrealist portrayal that services the dreamlike retelling from the two surviving brothers. The adaption, written by Gbolahan Obisesan, will tour next in London, where it will surely find a hungry audience for this superb showing of Obioma’s masterpiece.
Assembly George Square Studios – Two (Venue 17)
Until 27 August
Image: New Perspectives Theatre Company