The Fishermen is a hugely ambitious project. Gbolahan Obisesan’s adaptation of Chigozie Obioma’s brilliant novel distils a 300-page epic family saga into an 80 minute play; it transfers the rich geographical and cultural landscape of a Nigerian village onto a small, circular wooden platform, bare except for aluminium poles which meander across the centre; and it relies on two actors to play the roles of a large cast of characters. And the result? A beautiful and moving piece of theatre.
Two brothers, reunited after eight years apart, replay the events that led to their separation. It is a story of a family blown apart by circumstance and prophecy. Paternal ambition, boyish rebellion, mysticism, brutality, shame – these are the ingredients of the tragedy that plays out in front of us. But it is a narrative about brotherhood as much as it is a gripping tale of violence and family disintegration. The intimacy of the two young boys is expressed through football and jokes and songs and games, as well as rivalries, fights, dependence and, ultimately, profound grief. These are lads who simply want to play but who become drawn into a destructive spiral of events over which they have no control.
The two actors have the daunting task of playing parents, older brothers, neighbours, soldiers, policemen and ‘madman’ – in addition to the brothers themselves. But Michael Ajao and Valentine Olukoga inhabit these disparate roles with astonishing authenticity: from the mother’s hip-swaying falsetto and the father’s heavy-footed, authoritative gruffness to the neighbour’s shrill self-righteousness. Ajao even plays a dying fish with utter conviction! Occasionally the transitions are difficult to track, but when they get it right, the seamlessness of the transformations is breath-taking.
But it’s not just the brilliance of the actors that makes The Fishermen a compelling watch. Director Jack McNamara’s staging is brave and visually engaging, with perfect pacing that balances the narrative action with moments of affectionate humour or raw emotional drama. And it is a production in which all the creative elements come together perfectly: Amelia Jane Hankin’s evocative stage design, Adam McCready’s quietly disturbing soundscape and Amy Mae’s lighting design (which almost tells the story on its own.) These powerfully enrich the experience as well as conveying a real sense of mystery that hangs in the air throughout.
The Fishermen is, quite simply, a mesmerising piece of theatrical storytelling.