“Features two of the most hypnotically talented performances of this kind of theatre that one can imagine.”
There might not be a more dynamic duo performing a play this year than Michael Ajao and Valentine Olukoga. As Nigerian brothers Ben and Obembe, these two gifted actors weave a complicated and enthralling yarn over 70 minutes, so intricate and poetic that it comes as no surprise the story is adapted from a Man Booker-nominated novel. The Fishermen follows the beats of many a heavy narrative, with foreshadowing, doomed individuals, unreliable narrators and a circular, multi-layered structure — despite an occasional sense of the melodramatic, this play is a seriously impressive offering.
The plot, adapted by Gbolahan Obisesan from the book by Chigozie Obioma, is ostensibly about a Nigerian family who endure devastating tragedies and possibly supernatural intervention, but through the eyes of the two youngest sons looking back on their childhoods. Ben and Obembe are two of four brothers; meeting again after an initially unspecified time apart, they take delight in comparing their impersonations of their siblings and parents, which eventually smooths out into a full retelling of the story of their family’s disintegration. As Ajao and Olukoga swap impressions and voices, they also don various physicalities of the myriad characters, resulting in some dazzlingly nimble portrayals of multiple characters. The choreography of all these personalities is constantly stunning, as is the pleasantly simplistic set, consisting only of a few sandbags and metal poles which are brandished, tossed, hid behind, run through, and smacked to drive home a point or two.
The entire production, in fact, relies on the multifaceted usability of various miscellanea, from the poles to the colours and intensities of lighting to the sometimes captivating sometimes haunting musical score, to the performers themselves. It is no understatement to say The Fishermen features two of the most hypnotically talented performances of this kind of theatre that one can imagine — Ajao and Olukoga are capable of jumping from character to character with such passion and specificity you will believe there is an entire ensemble onstage. They traverse ages, one second a young boy, the next an old maid; they flip personalities, from a maddened mother to a corrupt policeman and back again in a flash; once or twice even across species, as the fishermen suddenly embody the fish.
The production’s breakneck speed is both deeply impressive for its performers’ dexterity and quite disturbing, for its surprisingly horrifying subject matter. One particularly intriguing element of this frenetic multi-roling is the eventual shift from playful impersonation to darker realms verging on the schizophrenic or untethered — though endlessly impressive, this device becomes somewhat overplayed from time to time. The surreal is introduced about halfway through, in a device both haunting and seemingly out of another production altogether; Ajao must be given credit for his disarming portrayal of a possibly possessed madman, which is one of the more viscerally affecting visual moments of the show. Moments like this, however, result in a disorienting effect: though not necessarily a negative aspect, the fact that Ajao plays both the madman and the youngest brother who is so terrified by the madman’s words, and the forlorn mother, and about a hundred other souls is an exhausting experience, and comes to feel at odds with the depth and dourness of the narrative.
Ultimately, however, this novelistic piece of theatre is one of the more mature and compelling shows at Fringe, and well worthy of a large and engaged audience. The story is book-ended quite affectingly with a reunion, which is a splendid choice for such an otherwise complex, frenetic story. The show may be sad, but the central performers will wow you, without a doubt.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 8 August)