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Gaming Events 2019 - Review: The Fishermen (New Perspectives) -

Tuesday 24 July 2018
HOME, Manchester

I know I’m in the middle of reviewing GM Fringe productions at the moment, so it’s a bit weird to break off to review a piece of new theatre that, although it was staged in Manchester during the month of the Fringe, isn’t part of the GM Fringe. To add to the confusion, the play is travelling up for the Edinburgh Fringe in August (so it’s ‘fringe’ theatre in Edinburgh, but ‘mainstream’ theatre in Manchester – make of that what you will!).

Anyway… I attended the press night of The Fishermen, an adaptation of Chigozie Obioma’s award-winning novel, at HOME. Set in 1990s Nigeria, Obioma’s novel tells the story of the Agwu brothers (and narrated by Benjamin Agwu), whose lives are torn apart by a prophecy. The New Perspectives production has been adapted from the novel by Gbolahan Obisesan, and is reimagined as an intense and dynamic two-hander, told by, and from the perspectives of, brothers Benjamin and Obembe.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith
The play’s set (by designer Amelia Jane Hankin) is simple but incredibly effective. A curved line of vertical metal poles cuts the stage into two halves. Behind the poles sits Benjamin (played by Michael Ajao), and in front we see Obembe (Valentine Olukoga). Before any introduction to the characters or their story, this visual device instantly evokes the sense of division and distance that will be explored throughout the play. Lighting (by Amy Mae) and sound design (by Adam McCready) add to this effect, creating an eerie, tense and compelling opening scene – beginning to tell the story before the actors have even moved a muscle.

Obembe has returned home to southern Nigeria after eight years’ absence. While the reason behind his absence is only revealed gradually, it is clear that there is some estrangement between Obembe and his family. Ajao’s Ben exudes a tangible sense of resentment in the opening exchange between the brothers, which Olukoga counters by giving his Obembe a forced joviality that hints at underlying guilt.

As the brothers reluctantly face up to their reunion, they begin to reminisce about the events that led to their separation. And it’s at this point that the cleverness of Obisesan’s adaptation is revealed.

Obioma’s novel is a family saga, narrated with a reasonably linear chronology by Benjamin. In order to ‘distil’ the story for the stage, Obisesan has reimagined this as Benjamin and Obembe recollecting events years after the fact. Ben and Obembe narrate the events of their childhood, ‘playing’ the various characters who appear. The story is presented as a series of fragmented vignettes – some comical, some serious – but always with the ominous sense that something is going to go horribly wrong.

And so the story unfolds: Despite their father’s aspirations, the Agwu brothers decide that they will become fishermen. Led by oldest brother Ikenna, they decide to fish in the forbidden Omi-Alu river (their mother has ruled this strictly off limits – bad things happen here). And it’s all fun and games until local madman Abulu prophecies that Ikenna will be killed by a fisherman, and an angry old woman grasses the boys up to their mum. Family tensions and the desire for revenge spiral out of control, as Benjamin and Obembe bring the story to its shocking and violent climax.

Ajao and Olukoga’s performances were near-flawless. The two embody a range of characters with such skill that it genuinely feels at points as though there is a cast of more than two. (I say ‘near-flawless’ as there were just two times when I think the transition from one character to the next was not quite right, and an actor delivered a line in the wrong character’s voice.) From troubled Ikenna, to his swaggering slightly-younger brother Boja, to the frankly chilling appearance of Abulu, each of the characters ‘appeared’ on stage distinct and embodied.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith
I’ve already mentioned the staging, but as the story unfolds the power of this production’s deceptively simple design is revealed. Just as the two bodies on stage transform into a larger cast, the set design becomes a range of locations. Those metal poles are river reeds one minute – which the boys run around in childhood glee – then are pulled up by the actors to become fishing rods, then form walls, marking out rooms in a house, then become the tool of the ultimate act of vengeful destruction that seals Ben and Obembe’s fates.

Added to this, lighting and sound are used to excellent effect. With no backdrops or scenery to aid them, Mae and Macready use their respective techniques to conjure a river, a house, a small town with impressive style and effectiveness. Jack McNamara’s skilful direction transforms the small raised stage of HOME’s intimate Theatre 2 into a grand and near-unlimited landscape.

Reviews of Obioma’s novel almost inevitably included comparisons to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart – indeed, the book itself includes a reference to Achebe’s work. Obisesan’s adaptation retains a little nod to the earlier novel (one of the boys’ ideas for enacting revenge is called the ‘Okonkwo plan’), but the comparison isn’t laboured. Instead, this adaptation allows space for an exploration of the other influences and echoes in Obioma’s work, in particular the biblical story of Cain and Abel, and classical tragedy.

By focusing so keenly on the interaction between two estranged brothers – who, in turn, evoke and enact a past antagonism between their two older brothers – the Cain-and-Abel element is foregrounded. The refiguring of the play as a retrospective narration of events that have already occurred lends the story the fatalism and inevitability of high tragedy.

For all this, though, there is a brutality and a coldness to The Fishermen that is really quite arresting. While it is easy to fall into sympathising with Ben and Obembe – mostly because of nuanced and emotive performances by Ajao and Olukoga – they (and Ikenna and Boja) aren’t actually very nice kids. Remove the highbrow symbolism, biblical and classical allusions, and metaphors for national identity, and what you have left is four arrogant and aggressive young men who ignore their parents and victimise people beneath them on the social hierarchy (cutting the head off a neighbour’s chicken, attacking Abulu). This is also a very male story; the only women in The Fishermen are the ignored mother (who later becomes a figure of abject grief and semi-madness), the beleaguered neighbour who loses a chicken, and the mentioned-but-not-seen mutilated corpse found in the Omi-Alu. Viewed in this way, the Agwu brothers emerge as callous, destructive and lacking in empathy.

The brothers’ contradictory status as aggressive, victimising men who are simultaneously victims of a society that doesn’t allow for masculinity that isn’t aggressive and victimising undoubtedly returns us to comparisons with Things Fall Apart. But I was particularly struck by the way that the New Perspectives production of The Fishermen dealt with this contradiction and, in fact, put it at the heart of the play’s distinctive storytelling style.

Throughout the play, we are led to see the ‘characters’ of the boys’ mother, the local madmen, Ikenna and Boja, their overbearing father, all appearing as though ‘in the flesh’. But, really, as we can see, there is no one there. There is nothing but Ben and Obembe, alone and estranged on a near empty stage. Things fell apart long before the play even began, and the emotional journey we travelled was, in the end, a memory tale told by two haunted young men.

The Fishermen is an accomplished, ambitious and intelligent piece of theatre – a strong recommendation from me. It’s finished its Manchester run now, but it will be on at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. And it’s well worth going to see.
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