Theatre review: Welcome to Thebes

Posted on: 14 July 2010 by Mark O'haire

Laurence Green reviews Moira Buffini’s ambitious and topical new play Welcome to Thebes at the National Theatre’s Olivier auditorium.

It must have seemed like a great idea - update an ancient Greek tragedy and link it to contemporary African politics - but the result in Moira Buffini’s ambitious and topical new play Welcome to Thebes (NT’s Olivier auditorium), directed by Richard Eyre, fails to live up to expectations.

Faced with an impoverished population, a shattered infrastructure and a volatile army, the first democratic president of Thebes, Eurydice, promises peace to her nation. Without the aid of Theseus, the leader of the vastly wealthy state of Athens, she doesn’t stand a chance. But Theseus is arrogant, mercurial and motivated by profit. A swaggering opposition circles, impatient for insurrection. The body of the former dictator lies unburied, and a boy solder is carelessly murdered.

Set in the present day but inspired by ancient myth, the play explores an encounter between the world’s richest and poorest countries in the aftermath of a brutal war, and is possibly based on the story of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who rose to power in Liberia five years ago as a result of the efforts of a feminist peace movement. While its subjects include tyranny, justice, loss, the fragile nature of democracy and the old adage that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’, the play at times becomes more didactic than dramatic and marred by cliché, while theatregoers without a detailed knowledge of Greek tragedy will find themselves at a distinct loss. Furthermore in combining both ancient and modern, the focus becomes uncertain, with young soldiers in combat gear wielding machine guns, references to voicemail, leaked news stories and odd websites, and the sound of helicopters are heard overhead, yet the characters with names like Antigone, Tiresias and Theseus call to mind Sophocles and Euripides.

Richard Eyre, however, managed to draw strong performances from his NT ensemble, of whom Nikki Amuka-Bird as a coolly determined and dignified Eurydice, David Harewood as an imposing Theseus and Chuk Iwuki as a rousing Prince Tydeus, the leader of the opposition and the biggest impression.

By Laurence Green

Where: National Theatre’s Olivier auditorium

When: Plays in repertory until 19 August

Box Office: 020 7452 3333

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