Welcome To Thebes @ Olivier, National Theatre, London

cast list
Nikki Amuka-Bird and David Harewood, 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, Simon Manyonda, Bruce Myers, Pamela Nomvete, Clare Perkins, Victor Power, Daniel Poyser, Joy Richardson, Vinette Robinson, Zara Tempest-Walters and Michael Wildman.

directed by
Richard Eyre

With its almost unparalleled scope for war and horror, contemporary Africa is an easy fit for the epic scale of classical drama. But rather than simply transposing a classic play into a new setting – as Out of Joint notably did with their impressive staging of Macbeth at the Arcola – Moira Buffini’s Welcome to Thebes takes Greek tales and combines them with recent African history to create a very modern drama. Having been elected into government in the wake of a brutal war, Eurydice and her party of women are tasked with rebuilding a shattered country and nurturing a fledgling democracy. To do this she needs the help of Theseus, ‘first citizen’ of the powerful and wealthy state of Athens, and the play centres around Theseus’ visit to Thebes for her inauguration and the resulting collision of these two very different worlds.

Nikki Amuka-Bird as Eurydice is compelling as a proud and principled woman, forced into a desperate situation by grim political necessities but ultimately undone by her inability to move on from her own emotional damage. Her decision to leave unburied the body of the state’s former dictator – fuelled by her own terrible loss at his hands – is the trigger for a series of increasingly destabilising events, and proof of the difficulty inherent in even the most committed ‘truth and reconciliation’ process. Matching her performance, David Harewood excels as the arrogant, charismatic Theseus, and the chemistry between the two leads gives the play much of its strength.

It’s hard to single out performances in a large and uniformly strong cast, though as the swaggering – and clearly bonkers – military opposition, Chuk Iwuji is a dangerous delight, egged on Rakie Ayola’s cold-eyed Pargeia. Jacqueline Defferary’s frustrated diplomat Talthybia is also impressive, while Vinette Robinson deserves praise for her anguished Antigone.

The play has a contagious kinetic energy well-sustained by Richard Eyre’s skillful direction. A strong opener sees child soldiers stalking the aisles threatening to shoot people if their mobile phones go off – a tactic more theatres could perhaps usefully employ – and though it is a very talky play, it mostly manages to maintain that energy throughout, sagging only occasionally as the issues threaten to overtake the action.

In her interweaving of Greece and Africa, the classic and the modern, Buffini is well served by Tim Hatley’s dramatic sets, which could equally serve as a war-devastated dictator’s palace or an ancient ruin, further emphasising the timelessness of the piece. The play slyly nods to those who know their Greek drama, with Theseus’ increasingly distracted calls to his absent wife Phedre getting plenty of chuckles, though the playing out of his own Greek tragedy at home by the end feels like an unwieldy addition to an already issues heavy piece.

But generally, the conceit works exceptionally well. While the Athens-USA similarity it too obvious to need comment (with Sparta-as-China waiting in the wings as a negotiating tool for Thebes), grounding the action in the world of Ancient Greece lends the play a resonance and reminds us that the Greeks, often considered the founders – and ideal – of Western civilisation, were no slouches themselves when it came to savagery. This echoes Eurydice’s – and, by extension, the play’s – assertion that such chaos is not an “African” problem, it is a human one, one which no society should feel immune from. It makes for a thought-provoking and moving piece of theatre.

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