Directed by Richard Eyre, Welcome to Thebes, Moira Buffini’s ambitious new play at the National Theatre, merges Greek myth with contemporary West African politics; the results are flawed but often fascinating. I saw the first preview tonight, and while there are, inevitably at this stage, a few moments that require a bit more definition and pace, the production is already in pretty strong shape and boasts some superb performances. It is, I'm happy to report, a much more satisfying experience than the Eyre film I reviewed earlier this week.
Buffini’s text imagines Thebes as an impoverished African country emerging from a brutal civil war, and her Eurydice (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is the first female democratic leader of the country. (The clearest parallels are with Liberia’s current president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.) The play opens on the day that Theseus (David Harewood), the ruler of Athens (a US-like superpower, here), arrives for talks with Eurydice, allowing Buffini to stage an encounter between “First” and “Third World” nations that plays out against a backdrop of civilian unrest, a volatile military and the machinations of Prince Tydeus (Chuk Iwuji), the leader of the opposition.
What the Greek myth mash-up adds to Welcome to Thebes is debatable. At times, it seems more of a distraction than anything else and a way for Buffini to inject a few cheap laughs into the play: there’s a line about Phaedra and Theseus’s wedding photos being “on all the celebrity sites on the internet” and another crack about Ismene and Antigone’s “motherfucking dad” (ie. Oedipus, ho, ho). These moments seem more gimmicky than revealing. But, at other times, the mythic resonances seem to have inspired Buffini to develop a robust, vigorous and poetic language for the play; there are passages of great beauty and power (albeit juxtaposed with some jarring slang), and the examination of issues of gender, conflict and states(wo)manship is often extremely insightful. (I particularly liked the scene in which Theseus is introduced to Eurydice’s female senators.)
Amuka-Bird gives a deeply felt and finely modulated performance as Eurydice that conveys both strength and an awareness of the vulnerability of the character’s position; in a startling and moving late scene, she reveals the rage and bitterness that the protagonist has suppressed up to this point. Amuka-Bird works well with Harewood, who gives a distinguished performance as always, despite being saddled with some of the play’s sillier conceits (such as a running gag about getting in touch with Phaedra on a mobile phone). Bruce Myers is a brilliant Tiresias, while Vinette Robinson and Tracy Ifeachor do well as Antigone and Ismene. Eyre’s direction is assured and intelligent, though some of the scenes between Iwuji’s Tydeus and Rakie Ayola’s vengeful Pargeia feel melodramatic and even tacky. But while you can quibble with aspects of the conception of Welcome to Thebes, it's a bold and important play that deserves to be seen.