Image Credit: Quangpraha (CC0)
By the time I get a chance to talk to Michael, The Fishermen has already made the long journey down from Edinburgh to London. It’s where both Michael Ajao and Valentine Olukoga, the stars of the award-winning stage performance, come from, and the difference in energy there is apparently palpable – with both family and friends amongst a sold-out audience. Just an hour before our conversation, an extra matinee performance has been added. “There’s a real buzz,” he says, and no wonder – after a month in the Scottish capital, the show has started on its UK tour, heading into Oxford next week.
Adapted from the Man Booker nominated novel by Chigozie Obioma, the play is centred around two brothers – Ben and Obembe – in their small Nigerian village, and the events which spiral from an afternoon fishing at a river.
Adapting a novel for the stage brings its own challenges, including cutting a central cast of four brothers down to two. In many ways, it’s a “show of transitions”, with characters and scenes shifting through masterful use of light, sound, and physicality. The stage chemistry between Michael and Valentine is fantastic – the two first worked together on Liberian Girl at the Royal Court, where they played a tag-team duo of child soldiers. That same brotherly bond has been carried through here, and the result is a slick, effortless production, with some of the transitions happening at such a speed that the two need to remind themselves to “give the audience a moment to breathe”.
Other narrative decisions, have had to be made, such as limiting the huge scale of the characters’ lives, and these help to focus the story further. But Michael is adamant that Obioma’s book helped The Fishermen achieve the success it did in Edinburgh, culminating in a much sought-after The Stage Edinburgh Award. While it certainly presents a compelling narrative, I disagree. The acting, direction, and design of this performance are what truly makes it, such that it’s scarcely believable that such a degree of intense creativity was able to be crammed into an hour and ten minutes. And an honourable mention must of course go to playwright Gbolahan Obisesan, who has managed to twist this narrative into such a concise adaption at all.
Interestingly, both Michael and Valentine have used London as a source of inspiration for their work – and it has had more of an effect on the show, set in 90s Nigeria, than one might think. Although both of Nigerian heritage, the two worked hard upon their accent in the piece, drawing from the diverse community around them. Once you find a character’s voice, I’m told, the rest follows easily. So it’s a case of drawing from a variety of sources – from TV and films to one’s own family – and then “going deeper” – becoming more authoritative or innocent as the character demands. As the youngest child in his own family, Michael tells me that the authoritative eldest, Ikena, is the most fun to play – but it’s the younger characters which are the most challenging, requiring an integrity which can be sustained through the years the play covers.
What is even more extraordinary is not only the extent to which diverse narratives are shown on stage, but also howthey are presented here in a largely non-political way. The Fishermen is in a way extraordinary for its simplicity, in its willingness to tell a story without the need to address contemporary issues. It’s a compelling tale of prophecy and family and tragedy – and that’s in itself revolutionary. As Michael says, it’s an opportunity to show that, just as Roald Dahl or Charles Dickens are praised for the quality of their storytelling, writers of colour are able to craft a narrative independent of identity politics – they can “have imagination too”.
So why is this narrative needed now? In a way, the show’s very success – along with creations such as Trojan Horse and The Stage award-winning Queens of Sheba – demonstrates its importance. For a long time Edinburgh has been “whitewashed”, and the success of such diverse casts showsthe willingness of audiences to see the landscape change. And this diversity extends in different, less-visible ways behind the scenes, too: New Perspectives is a predominantly female theatre company.
Thinking back to the performance of The Fishermen I saw, I’m convinced that this is a show of moments – of intense minutes of imagery which stay in the mind long after. But why should people come to see it in Oxford? Michael notes that it’s the sort of story that doesn’t usually get to be told in Oxford – inundated as it is with term-time drama or overly-commercial theatre – and it’s a stop halfway through a tour that touches some often-overlooked corners of the UK. It’s a show of energy and fluidity and importance, but above all it’s an hour of beautiful storytelling by two incredibly talented actors. And that’s something increasingly hard to find.
The Fishermen is at The North Wall Arts Centre Oxford from Wednesday 26th to Friday 28th September.