The Theatreguide.London Review
Welcome To Thebes
Olivier Theatre Summer 2010
Moira 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.
In 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.
At 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 survival?
For Thebes, read 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.
And Buffini adds 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 all-female Cabinet.
And so gender 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 with?
The Antigone story 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.
Eurydice's attempt 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.
If 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.
As Eurydice, Nikki 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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