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Valentine Olukoga (Obembe) kits out as grandmother-old woman (right) to utter her diatribe at the two boys (Michael; Ajao as Ben, left) Pictures: Pamela Raith Photography

The Fishermen

Derby Theatre


I arrived in Derby, with difficulty (appalling roadworks, even worse at the close) in time for the 7.00 press night opening, only to learn that New Perspectives’ highly admirable play The Fishermen had got weaving at 6.30: everyone else seemed to know except me, so sadly and shamefacedly I was the last in.

It didn’t matter much, for the rest of the evening was fabulously vital and constantly arresting.  The play The Fishermen, on tour and now en route to the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, East London, is based, in Gbolahan Obisesan’s very skilled adaptation, on the story by 32-year-old Chigozle Obloma – surely in descent from the great Nigerian writer, supporter of Biafran Independence and 2007 Man Booker Prize winner was Chinua Achebe (1930-2018), most famed for his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart.

Obloma himself was born in Akure, Ondo State between Benin and Ibadan, and east of Lagos. Obisesan’s play The Fishermen, for which Obloma himself was nominated for a Booker award in 2017, stars just two characters, Ben (Michael Ajaa) and Obembe (Valentine Olukoga). Obembe’s is a name not unknown - he shares it with the Nigeria Medical Association’s president), whose sparring antics on the stage reminded me of nothing so much as Waiting for Godot. Indeed, it’s arguably on a par with that great piece of stagework.

Because this duo, falling apart and then reconciled again, engaged heavily West African (indeed Nigerian) accents – Obloma’s own Yoruba perhaps – that it was not 100% easy to decipher what they were saying (do they ever use supertitles/surtitles in the theatre, as in opera – perhaps especially, when in English?) At times it was like listening to a lovely, susurrating vocalise, a melody without actual words (such as Rachmaninov’s). Yet strangely, not drastically the worse for that, the stage action being so mesmerising.


Brothers Obembe (Valentine Olukoga) and Ben (Michael Ajao)

What one knew for certain was that it was important, beautifully crafted, and as full of shifting moods, brotherly affection and sour interchanges as the Beckett play. This was a script about real human beings. Jack McNamara, Artistic Director of New Perspectives, in a touching introduction to the programme: the play boils the action (a family saga) down to just two people. We still meet the other characters (encountered in the original book), but only through the prism (the right word, in this case) of two brother . . . I am fascinated with the idea that siblings hold traces of their wider family within them. An encounter between siblings (as here, passim) can become a confrontation with one’s parents or other siblings: a notion that gives this play its particular dramatic engine.’

Engine indeed, and this is a part-fast, part-slow moving stagework: thanks to the variety in the brothers, especially Olukoga’s Obembe midway and Ajao’s Ben – big time – in the later stages (which include his predicted killing by his brother as the play climaxes), we are drawn in and mesmerised by their activities, their obsessions, their trysting engagements: what will come next, one constantly muses. The fact that Lighting Director Amy Mae is so artful in picking out the relevant brother, at points all over the stage, adds to their character by pinpointing face and gesture, anguish and optimism. There’s more: one or two of her main lights switches were simply amazing.

Jack McNamara directs, and he supplies the pair with energised antics that provide a constant visual feast, but more importantly adds life to the actors’ already energised and eye-catching expressions of personality. Obembe is the overexcitable, impressively athletic, hectically argumentative one, more youthful (almost teenage; indeed the central figure in Chigozle Obloma’s novel is ten; perhaps in this script he’s been upward amended, meant to be older, but not so far off that), feeling his way, cheeky and flippant.

Ben is soberer, tolerant to a degree, in many senses wiser: the teacher. When he drops his voice (each of them does), that moment gets charged with pregnant meaning. Much of their conversation is seriously ontological: what is life? What is its purpose? What, by contrast, is death? When Ben, exasperated with his own as well as his brother’s inadequacies, explodes near the end, amid a fabulously worded soliloquy with superlative  articulation, he provides perhaps the most significant, telling moment in Obisesan’s meaningful script.

brothers play

Football amid the reeds. A way of forgetting. Obembe (Valentine Olukoga) and Ben (Michael Ajao)

Amid the serious familial undertones there’s comedy in droves, too. ‘You boys aren’t supposed to play by the river’, Obembe (in headscarf, ie granny?) reproves the; pair (so is wise Ben a teen too? Note their references to ‘mummy and daddy’). Or is this, most likely, ironic, a flashback? They cheerfully lapse into mutual chicken cluckings, a good deal of chuckling, some really entertaining falsetto, and much more.

The music (Adam McCready of Poetical Machines) is always an asset. Never fancy, never show stealing; mysterious, lulling, positive. The set is crucial: juxtaposed stalagmites of upsprouting metal tubes – surely the reeds by the river – through which they can weave like a football team training, hockey players dribbling or children doing a cycling proficiency test. The lighting again works wonders: thus lilacs and purples, bold yellows, unexpected blues, silver, even pure golds change the look of this fencelike creation entirely. Sometimes the pair are corralled behind this stockade. Sometimes one or the other bursts out through this basically silvered slatting. Each pole can be lifted out with ease, as if to reset the stage.

This is down to Designer Amelia Jane Hankin, who is embarking on the RSC’s The Comedy of Errors (at Stratford 19 October – 2 November) and has a CV to die for. No wonder the set’s impact, so simple and contained – hence restricting - verged on miraculous. A lighting pole frontstage right suggests a kind of totem: if you concentrated, this became as ominous as The Lord of the Flies. Meanwhile an oval shape suggests, but oh so subtly, here a boat, perhaps here an African mud roundhouse. We cannot miss seeing the former. In a way, it haunts.

The two only periodically, and very briefly, fish. This a play about personal issues, not dangling a rod. And what are they fishing for? Not cod or salmon. Tilapia? And the river? Perhaps one of the plethora, the ‘maze of rivers’, the seventeen-odd waterways from Obloma’s own southern state: Omilyan, Owesse, Oto, Ipelu, Iporo, Imojo, Iwore (though others give Owena, Oluwa, Oni, Ogbese, Ose, etc.: most tipping into the Gulf of Guinea, and every one a name to be intrigued by and marvel at.    

This is a stage piece with many an arresting moment, a classic exploration of sibling alliance and rivalry, and never drooping for a moment, it feels incredibly real. It’s very finely acted (a huge number of words for just two actors to digest) and in its way thoroughly absorbing.

New Perspectives does what it says on the packet: gives us a new way of looking at things outside our immediate ken. One can only be grateful.

On tour until Saturday 6 October, visiting Dalston Arcola (Mon 17-Sat 22 Sept), University of Hertford (Wed 25), Oxford North Wall Arts Ctre (Thurs 26-Sat 28), Bromsgrove Artrix (Tues 2 Oct), Nottingham Lakeside (Thu 4-Fri 5), and Cambridge Mumford (Sat 6 Oct).

Roderic Dunnett


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