The Fishermen at Trafalgar Studios
Gbolahan Obisesan’s adaptation of Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen is an ambitious piece of theatre. The source material is extremely bleak; with an undeviating intensity, the plot unfolds with an atmosphere of sheer unpleasantness which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. The play is, in many ways, a lot tamer and spares some of the more grievous details, although it still maintains the same tone throughout – but it is a lot more jarring and unevenly distributed, no doubt because it cramps the novel into just over one hour’s worth of runtime. But the show is still buzzing with energy and contains the brilliant plot of the original.
Obisesan reduces the book into a two-hander and takes up where the novel leaves off: Ben (David Alade) and Obembe (Valentine Olukoga) reunite by a river near their local village and go through the emotional turmoil of recounting the tragic events of the past. Morphing frequently – and seamlessly – into other characters from their childhood, they narrate how a curious encounter with a local madman and prophet stains the relationships within the family. Throughout the production, designer Amelia Jane Hankin creates a sense of claustrophobia through a series of metal poles which serve as a barrier.
The casting choice is fantastic. Both Alade and Olukoga are extremely gifted actors who bring both of their characters to life, and yet still manage to shift briefly into other characters in a way which feels both real and natural. They constantly maintain the energy of the piece, never letting the audience come to rest as the tension builds up – a feat further amplified by Amy Mae’s excellent lighting design.
However, this also sheds a light on the play’s weakness: it often feels overwhelming. In many instances it’s difficult to determine who is supposed to be who at that moment; some scenes are glanced over too quickly, moving gradually into the realm of confusion. For readers of the book, it should still be easy enough to follow, but those unfamiliar with Obioma’s work will inevitably get lost and yearn for a few quieter moments of contemplation.
The solution? Quite simply an extension of the runtime by half an hour or so – and it would definitely be worth it since the writing is otherwise very strong indeed, making for a fascinatingly insightful and energetic play which puts an unusual twist on the traditional coming-of-age story.
Photos: Robert Day
The Fishermen is at Trafalgar Studios from 3rd September until 12th October 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.