The Theatreguide.London Review
Buffini's new play at the National Theatre uses the power and majesty
of myth to inform and enrich a story of modern practical politics. Or
perhaps it uses a modern setting to bring reality and immediacy to
ancient mythic tales.
either case, it
is a remarkably ambitious undertaking that is remarkably successful, a
play of epic scope, thought-provoking implications and rich emotional
and psychological depth.
the play's core
is the story of Antigone (who challenges post-war authority by giving
burial rites to her rebel brother), modified and transported to a
contemporary setting. All but destroyed by its civil war, Thebes is in
desperate need of foreign aid and turns, hat in hand, to rich Athens
and its leader Theseus. How far must a dying country go, what will it
give away, how much must it humble itself, to beg for its very
Yugoslavia or Iraq or Afghanistan or any self-destroying African
country; for Athens, read America - parallels that Buffini makes clear
without straining them, so that the issues of the play are very real
and present to us.
two further factors, rewriting the myth so that the chaos of war is not
completely over, with a powerful and ambitious rebel warlord still
looking for power, now within the new and fragile democratic
government, and with King Creon dead and his widow Eurydice (a very
minor figure in the original story) the new President, with an almost
becomes very central to the play's thoughts. Will women run the peace
any better than men ran the war? Will Theseus and Athens respect or
even understand a female government? Does weakened, chaotic Thebes
actually need a strong - i.e. male - leader at this point, and will
Theseus find the warlord more understandable and attractive to deal
and Theseus's own Phaedra-Hippolytus tragedy happening offstage,
retreat into the background as the play explores what would originally
been just their background. Much is illuminated, for example, about the
very fragile state of a new democracy in a culture for which this is
all unknown territory, and about the enormous power gap between rich
and poor countries.
to bring a female sensibility to governance is examined sympathetically
but coolly, as in a comic scene of her Cabinet gossiping and nattering
but still finding their way to wholly fresh and attractive ways of
addressing social and political problems. And the characters themselves
are made deep, real and understandable, their personal adventures
mattering to us.
there is any
criticism to make of this extraordinary play, it is that its several
strands sometimes seem to be jockeying for our attention, as if there
were three or four parallel plays here, uncomfortably yoked together,
rather than a core drama operating smoothly on multiple levels - but
that seems almost inevitable, given Buffini's ambitious vision, and the
remarkable thing is that she and director Richard Eyre hold it together
as successfully as they do.
Amuka-Bird captures all the strain and majesty of a strong woman
operating far outside her comfort zone but driven by the conviction
that what she is doing has to be done. David Harewood makes Theseus a
complex blend of strength, egotism, awareness of his power, genuinely
good intentions, smug confidence, and the growing suspicion that he is
completely out of his depth.
And there are strong supporting performances by Chuk Iwuji as the warlord, Jacqueline Defferary as an aide who finds herself becoming Theseus' conscience, and Madeline Appiah, Michael Wildman and a rotating trio of boys as footsoldiers who have long since forgotten what they're fighting for but haven't figured out how to stop fighting.
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- Welcome To Thebes - National Theatre 2010