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A CurtainUp London London Review
Welcome to Thebes

by Cassie Robinson

He put this gun into my hand and made me human once again. . . I am all power. I am revenge. — Megaera
Welcome to Thebes
Cast in Welcome to Thebes
(Photo: Nobby Clark)
Moira Buffini's Welcome to Thebes combines ancient myth, fifth century Athenian outlook and politics, modern day African civil violence and American contemporary international relations. If on the surface this seems an unusually busy combination, the finished result is no less coherent. It is an ambitious, sprawling drama exploring the devastating effects of civil war and the role of individuals within it, but one which never quite decides on a consistent identity or purpose.

Welcome to Thebes takes as its main character Eurydice, not of Orpheus fame, but someone who is no more than a cameo figure in the ancient Theban tragedies. Creon's wife, she loses both her sons to the sweep of wider history: one to civil war and one to her husband's intransigent handling of the Antigone affair. Here, she is here "the elected leader of Thebes" and so a compassionate, sensible, although not perfect, woman replaces her autocratic husband. The play is set in the immediate wake of the battle between the two rivals to power, Oedipus' sons Eteocles and Polyneices. In a state reeling from atrocities inflicted by fellow citizens, there is mass killing and rape, while children wield weapons and rumours of cannibalism abound. The challenge facing Eurydice is how to heal a country ravaged both psychologically and physically.

Nikki Amuka-Bird tackles the part of Eurydice with stature and sincerity: a woman who has lost both son and husband to the war but within this grief and bereavement, must represent new curative hope for her country. David Harewood puts in an excellent performance as Theseus: the quasi-American politician sent to the war-torn state with the promise of both monetary relief and condescending ideals of democracy. Harewood is wonderful as this strutting, proud "first citizen of Athens" who in spite of his ego and folly is swooningly charismatic.

In addition, there is an overwhelming panorama of characters, including a battered, scruffy-looking Antigone (Vinette Robinson), her better-adjusted sister Ismene (Tracy Ifeachor) and the prophet Tiresias (Bruce Myers) the cryptic, infallible seer turned cross-dressing figure of camp comedy. Chuk Iwuji is the deliciously swaggering but brutal Tydeus, a warlord of flashy magnetism and sheer cruelty. There is a veritable chorus of female senators, elected to power by a Lysistrata-style manipulation of Theban husbands, and some rifle-touting soldiers whose childhood had been hijacked by carnage and suffering.

The design by Tim Hatley is an impressively scaled ruined but sculptural palace, surrounded by corrugated iron and rubble: a clear depiction of the severely distressed city which is at once ancient and modern. The costumes similarly reflect the diversity of the play, ranging from traditional African dress for the senators, sleek business suits for the visiting Athenians and varying combat gear for the guerrilla soldiers.

Although well-acted and enjoying a sumptuous production full of talent and resources, Welcome to Thebes crucially lacks a central integrity. The play is ultimately a whimsical (if at times obtuse) treatment of the myth, but with heavy messages of war and a stolidly epic production from Richard Eyre, these disparate threads are never convincingly pulled together. In a text littered with classical references and in-jokes, surely only audiences at the National Theatre would subject themselves to this sobering dose of erudition. The piece is clever, at times funny and has important, relevant themes, but the re-appropriated myth only serves to distract from and undermine the play's significance for the modern world.

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Welcome to Thebes
Written by Moira Buffini
Directed by Richard Eyre

Starring: Nikki Amuka-Bird, David Harewood
With: Madeline Appiah, Rakie Ayola, Omar Brown, Jessie Burton, Jacqueline Defferary, Daniel Fine, Karlina Grace, Rene Gray, Tracy Ifeachor, Irma Inniss, Chuk Iwuji, Alexia Khadime, Ferdinand Kingsley, Aicha Kossoko, Cornelius Macarthy, Simon Manyonda, Bruce Myers, Pamela Nomvete, Clare Perkins, Victor Power, Daniel Poyser, Joy Richardson, Vinette Robinson, Zara Tempest Walters, Michael Wildman
Designer: Tim Hatley
Lighting: Neil Austin
Choreographer: Stephen Warbeck
Composer: Scarlett Mackmin
Sound: Rich Walsh
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes including one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 18th August 2010
Reviewed by Cassie Robinson based on 7th July performance at Olivier, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)

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