Good theatre, even theatre that reaches those heady heights of greatness, is all down to the art of storytelling. It is unlike many other mediums in that you as the captive audience are completely at the mercy of the performers. The story, the delivery and the theatrics used to tell a tale are all armoury in the arsenal of the storyteller. Get it wrong and you’ve lost the audience. Get it right and you will have people regaling your tale to the world.
The Fisherman playing out at HOME Manchester is such a story. A tale that is based on the debut novel by Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma, which was shortlisted for the coveted Man Booker Prize in 2015. All the ingredients are present in The Fisherman that make such tales and fables legendary. A story of family that includes prophecies and culminates in tragedy. These elements are more than familiar through the ages. In Biblical tales, Greek tragedies and even Shakespearean classics.
Obioma’s The Fisherman is no different. It is the story of four brothers, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe, and Benjamin. When they begin to fish on a forbidden river they encounter a madman, Abulu, who prophecises that Ikena will be killed. Like all good prophecies, it comes true, but tragically it is at the hands of his brother Boja, who then commits suicide. The book’s themes deal with the socio-political situation of Nigeria and uses the tragedy and the hopes and dreams of the brother’s parents to pass comment on how Nigerians see themselves in this day and age.
Dramatizing such a wonderful but complex story for the stage is no easy feat, but Gbolahan Obisesan has cleverly chosen to focus on the main story that sets the narrative. Even more astutely, Obisesan decides to tell this tale not first hand through a cast of characters but instead focuses on the fate of Obembe and Benjamin, picking up the story in the future and recounting past events through their eyes. It’s a fantastic bit of invention by Obisesan, shifting the context so to avoid a bloated linear production but one that still allows the audience to be captivated by the sequence of events.
Playing the roles of Obembe and Benjamin are actors Valentine Olukoga and Michael Ajao. It is through their interactions that we meet the rest of the characters that play a part in this story, their brothers, their mother, their father and the madman. The play rests on their ability to shift from character to character seamlessly and one that they do so with stunning aplomb.
They have a remarkable camaraderie that shines through their performance. Both Olukoga and Ajao are sublimely scintillating in transitioning from each of the different characters. At times it is charming and affectionate, at other times it is utterly captivating and mesmerizing. The play’s achievements are in small part due to the wonderful performances of Olukoga and Ajao, it’s their delivery, the art of storytelling, that allows them to paint a vivid picture of a Nigerian landscape full of fascinating folk that are integral to the story.
Whilst I cannot heap enough praise on the actors of this piece, it would be remiss of me not to mention the wonderful direction of Jack McNamara and more importantly that of Amy Mae, who was responsible for the lighting to this piece. I tweeted in the aftermath of the show that we sometimes do not give enough kudos to people behind the scenes. This is possibly the best use of lighting I’ve seen in a play for a long time. Mae indeed has fun with lots of bold colours, the red river for example against the backdrop of darkness was always going to be a crowd pleaser.
Yet, what really makes the lighting stand out to such an extent that I feel compelled to comment on it, is that it becomes such a pivotal part of the storytelling itself. The use of light to transition from the different characters whilst influencing the mood of the audience during the tension filled story is a stunning theatrical achievement.
Make no mistake, The Fisherman is one of the best things to have graced the boards in Manchester this year. It is an incredibly well written piece, it’s a well crafted production and the actors act their bloomin’ socks off. What makes it so brilliant is that at the heart of it is a gripping story and a story that is told incredibly well!
Verdict: A must see production. Based on the Man Booker Prize nominated novel from Chigozie Obioma, this astute stage adaptation by Gbolahan Obisesan, is utterly gripping, with stand out performances from Valentine Olukoga and Michael Ajao. Theatre at it’s brilliant best.