In a 2016 interview for Fiction Writers Review, Chigozie Obioma revealed the place of inspiration from which his Man-Booker nominated debut novel, The Fishermen, was born. Living in Cyprus but homesick for Nigeria, Obioma spoke to his father on the phone one evening: ‘He told me of the growing closeness between my two oldest brothers, who, while growing up had a very serious rivalry between them. I started to think about the closeness and what it means to love your brother’. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that the novel feels like a sweet homage to unfaltering brotherhood, the oblivion of youth, and day-to-day life in Akure, Nigeria.
Told from the perspective of the youngest brother, packed full of imagery and interwoven between milestones in Nigeria’s own story, it is these three themes which resonate throughout. But, how can those strands be brought to life beyond the page, I wondered? It was not long before I would find out as the novel has been cleverly adapted for the stage by Gbolahan Obisesan and revived by New Perspectives, under the watchful director’s eye of Jack McNamara. Fresh from a sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, its season at the Arcola Theatre ended in December 2018, bringing new meaning to concepts of brotherhood, youth, and home as they are transferred from page to stage. The play remains true to Obioma’s story, telling the tale of four brothers growing up in 1990s Nigeria. After their father moves away to a new job, the boys start fishing at a forbidden river, trailing single file to its river beds day after day. When on one trip they encounter the local madman, Abulu, who predicts their tragic collective future, the boys’ relationships unravel, only to be reeled in instead by fate and fatalities.
The play begins where the novel leaves us, as brothers Ben, played by Michael Ajao, and Obembe, played by Valentine Olukoga, reunite and reunite and trace back their memory of those years. We immediately see the world through the eyes of a ten-year old; with lines rushing into each other and time measured through birthdays and favourite meals, it feels just how your little brother would excitingly recount his day at school: and then, and then and then… Perhaps the salience of this is unsurprising considering Obisesan grew up in Nigeria until the age of ten, which is also the age of the book’s protagonist, Ben.
By stripping a novel busy with characters, down to just two brothers, we enter a near-imaginary realm, where children can spend hours absorbed in their own story, and see others only through the lens of their world. The way this is captured by the actors is certainly one of the highlights of the play. The actors’ physicality bursts with energy and laughter as they jump from character to character, transforming from hysterical chickens to Mama Iyabo, Abulu the madman, to their stern father.
This playful storytelling device is made all the more striking set against Amelia Jane Hankin’s stage design; a simple curved, raised stage across which a line of large metal poles snake horizontally, reminiscent of a river. As the siblings transform the poles into fishing rods and weave in and out of them, we are again reminded of youth, when even the most mundane objects can acquire any new meaning. This is really where the chemistry between the two actors shines through. Both mock each other and squabble over the order of events, yet their joyful playfulness, and the way they bounce off each other captures Obioma’s intention of closeness brilliantly. They flit from laughing, arguing, trying to impress each other and resenting each other’s’ actions. This makes it all the more painful to watch as the play grows darker, and their relationships are torn apart, leaving each one isolated from those he loves the most.
While these reminders of youth and brotherhood are moving, it is the way the play intimately memorialises home that gives it such poignancy. Nigeria is felt through the play’s events, at the church service, and in their mother’s Ogbono soup, yet it also resonates far deeper into the structure and language of the play. To look at this, it is worth returning to the book, and Obioma’s intentions for it. In the 2016interview, Obioma identifies ‘West African realism’ as a common feature of his fiction writing. For him this captures the ‘nuances of the West African grappling with western civilisation which it has adopted, but moulding it into a hybridisation of his own traditional culture’. He goes on to say that ‘in the Igbo thought, there is no difference between the world of the physical and the supernatural’. This is abundantly clear throughout the novel, which is populated with vivid imagery. Ben sees other people ‘as’, rather than ‘like’ animals; Ikenna is a python that becomes a sparrow, Boja is a fungus, Obembe a search dog.
Without the stability of the page, these images run the risk of becoming lost, yet the play captures the space between the physical and the supernatural in a clever way. As the actors jump from character to character, their impressions give an air of pseudo-reality; of characters that are simultaneously real and imagined. What’s more, the exaggerated physicality of these impressions bring to life the imagery so potent in the novel; Ikenna transforms from python to sparrow, from a coiled hunched back with prowling eyes to a helpless panicker, darting around the stage before settling, limbs limp, head to one side.
West African realism also shines through in the way different languages are used, each carrying with them their own set of meanings. The boys’ mother generally communicates in Igbo, while the brothers speak to each other in Yoruba, the language of Akure. Despite being the official language of Nigeria, English is considered to be very formal, used by strangers and non-relatives to address you and, when switched into by family or friends, has the power of ‘digging craters’ between you and them. Often throughout the play, speeches would dart between English and either the Yoruba or Igbo, without translation. This creates a sense of multiplicity, of being simultaneous within the realities of these three languages, and for those in the audience that understand Yoruba or Igbo, this made the play even more close to home. Laughs came harder and quicker, seemingly sharing an inside-joke, and creating a deeper level of closeness between actor and audience.
The moments when the Agwu family’s story collided with Nigeria’s daily politics was a highlight for me. As was when the brothers meet MKO Abiola, becoming the children of the ‘Hope’93’ campaign as he runs for the presidency in the 1993 elections. Just two months later they are swept up in a riot, escaping the 1993 election uprising, which became a seminal day in Nigerian history. These two stories are an important reminder that events on the nation stage infiltrate daily lives in a variety of, often unmeasurable, ways. Unfortunately, these scenes are omitted from the play and, despite my enthusiasm for them, I do see why. By keeping the action as family-centric as possible, we remain in the Agwu bubble, and continue to view the world as they do.
We do however meet Nigeria in other ways. The brothers take us to a Sunday church service via an impressive impersonation of Pastor Collins, while other events, like Abulu’s car crash and the court case, are recalled between each other as memories, allowing us to remember what they remember. While not as rich as the election action, we are given an intimate insight into the busyness yet rudimentary pace of day-to-day in Akure.
The play closes with a scene that marks the brothers concluding their reminiscing. Heading home to greet their parents, they sing together in Igbo as they troop off the stage. Despite the story’s ever-darkening plot, notions of brotherhood and youth unravel before us, and we cannot help but notice that this is clearly a love letter to the idea of ‘home’. Nigeria is preparing to head to the polls for the 2019 elections and as attention is focused on the big men battling it out on the national stage, ‘The Fishermen’ is an important reminder of the gravity of the lives of the rest of us – how it feels to be a parent, to hope, to learn, to love, to grieve and to fish in Akure, Nigeria.