The Fishermen

19-28 July

Adapted for the stage by Gbolahan Obisesan, The Fishermen is a play about the Agwu family, who suffer the terrible consequences of a dark prophecy. Four brothers, just children, once close to one another, become separate, distant and suffer tragedy.

Eight years later, there is a reunion between two brothers Ben and Obembe. They reminisce about their childhood. The story goes that Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin were four brothers who fancied themselves as fishermen, even though it was forbidden to fish in the local river. They went fishing without the permission of their parents until they found out and put a stop to it. The father wanted his sons to grow up to be successful as doctors and lawyers, protesting that he sweats to send them to school to receive a good Western education and yet they choose to be fishermen.

They talk about how all those years ago they met a madman at the river who made a violent prophecy that came to torment the family.

Still haunted by what took place, the reunited Ben and Obembe revisit past territory. It was January 1996 when they gave up their passion for football and became fishermen. “Could we have stopped it?” they ask. “Could we have changed it?” They were going to become a professor and the family doctor. Why did they become fishermen?

And then, for a long time, there was no fishing.

Originally written by Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma, the debut novel became a global hit on publication in 2015. Jack McNamara, who directed the stage version at Home theatre recently, points out the differences between the novel and the play: “Whilst the novel is a family saga populated by many characters, the play boils the action down to just two people. We still meet the other characters, but only through the prism of the two brothers. I am fascinated with the idea that siblings hold traces of their wider family within them.”

Watching this concise stage version, one does wonder to what extent the themes and characterisation of the book will naturally be missing in a short stage adaptation. In fact, the play serves as a taster, a teaser, and encourages one to pick up the book to appreciate the story in its full glory. There are hints in the play at the postcolonial themes that are surely explored more fully in the book.

Michael Ajao and Valentine Olukoga, who play Ben and Obembe, respectively, are very talented at skilfully and energetically relaying to the audience a narrative that encapsulates not only their journeys, but also those of the other members of the Agwu family.

Sadia Habib

Photo inset by Pamela Raith Photography.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

1 July
Bradford Literature Festival

On a hot and humid 1 July, we travelled across the Pennines to see the National Youth Theatre’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a novel written by Mohsin Hamid and adapted for the stage by Stephanie Street. Though director Prasanna Puwanarajah couldn’t have planned it, Bradford’s heat and humidity that day aptly reflected the references by the protagonist to Lahore’s weather, one of the play’s settings.

The play’s philosophical start drew in its audience with questions of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why am I here?’ channelled via someone who had travelled over 7,000 miles to meet Changez (Akshay Sharan): “I am flattered you made the effort”. More penetrating and pensive contemplation followed: ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Who have we loved?’ The audience is asked, ‘Who have you loved?’ And what of the places that have shaped us? Changez can name three.

The audience participate by pondering identities, while being served cardamom infused Lahori masala tea and samosas by Hafez. Sipping the finest tea in a Lahore café, served by his big brother, Hafez, Changez takes on a journey with him where we meet the significant others in his life in the US. One is Chuck (Adam Wadsworth), with whom he landed a dorm, who invited him to Greece on an Ivy League holiday. Both go on to make the shortlist at Underwood Samson. There is Jim (James Dorman) - a big boss at Underwood Samson - who would give Changez a grilling at the interview, before hiring him as he was hungry and had a temper.

This is a different world, a corporate world, an American world. A world he is seduced by. He is the ‘other’, but doesn’t fully realise it yet. Underwood Samson - a firm with a competitive, cutthroat environment – is hard to get in and hard to stay in. Changez does both, for a while. Colleagues toast the company credit card - “May their limits be as high as the Manhattan skyline” - leading to uncomfortable silence when a colleague asks Changez if he drinks. Changez’ new ‘normal’ is a hotel room that costs more per night than his brother’s monthly pay.

There’s also Erica (Alice Harding); troubled, grieving Erica with an aching heart. Stage lights brightened to reveal clarity when she was there. Her home is Chris, who she sees everywhere; in the park, in the mirror, at the bottom of the rockpool.

But this journey with Changez is about more than his relationships with these Americans, it’s also about his relationship with America in the aftermath of 9/11. “You give off a strong sense of home,” Erica tells him. In many ways, New York City was like coming home, too, but, as Changez explains, “You don’t see the colour of your faces or your parents when you are a child, but then one day you do.” We see Changez’s life change as he increasingly becomes more and more ‘othered’; his life overcome with conflicts and tensions.

The National Youth Theatre has successfully pulled off a succinct, powerful stage production of a memorable book about identity and belonging in an increasingly racist and Islamophobic world. It’s especially triumphant in engaging the audience with Changez’ worlds, as we see his experiences of the American Dream.

Sadia Habib