BWW Reviews: WELCOME TO THEBES, The National Theatre, July 6 2010


Few would argue with the contention that theatre, especially The National Theatre, should address the big global questions and there are few bigger than how African nations can build viable states in the backwash of post-colonial strife. Moira Buffini's new play, Welcome to Thebes, uses the structure of classical Greek myths to explore the issues faced by idealistic democrats seeking to lead such nations out of chaos. The play introduces the audience to child soldiers, casual murder and the power of the Big Man which suggest Ms Buffini had recent conflicts in Sierra Leone or Liberia in mind when imagining her Thebes, but, alas, the continent is not short of nations struggling to find a way out of trauma.

David Harewood, as Theseus, first citizen of wealthy Athens on a state visit to Thebes to mark its newly elected government's investiture, captures the charisma of Obama, the libido of Clinton (that's Bill Clinton) and the ruthless realpolitik of Nixon, as he surveys the roiling turmoil of Thebes' emerging democratic politics. As Eurydice, Nikki Amuka-Bird stays committed to her principles, even as they weaken her in the eyes of even her own ministers. In a strong supporting cast, Chuk Iwuji as the anti-democratic warlord, Prince Tydeus, packs enough testosterone into his seductive easy solutions to show how tempting the reactionary view can be, when all around is collapsing.

Though its intentions are laudable, the play doesn't really click as drama - on the one hand, the script's allusions and in-jokes require a very full knowledge of Greek mythology; but on the other hand, many of the speeches are simplistic in their proposed solutions. Would women, merely by their gender, be immune to The Temptations of power? Would ministers in a new democracy really behave like a Sixth Form Council, giddy on the glamour of their new titles? Perhaps this criticism boils down to the ineluctable fact that most of the audience at the National Theatre know the problems, but the play doesn't offer any credible solutions - possibly, because, at this point in history, there are none.    

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