WELCOME TO THEBES
by Moira Buffini.
Olivier Theatre Upper Ground South Bank SE1 9PX In rep to 19 August.
Runs: 2hr 35min One interval.
TICKETS 020 7452 3000.
Review: Carole Woddis 6 July 6.
Ambitious, enlightening, thinking on a big scale.
At last a major play by a woman dramatist on the South Bank’s largest stage. Moira Buffini’s Welcome to Thebes is a terrific and ambitious piece – a blast of feminism hitched to a retelling of Greek tragedies and myths, set within the context of present day Africa: violent times, boy and girl soldiers, rape, brutality. The cynic would say, yet another stereotype of brutal Africa where blood lust and the chaos seems unending.
But Buffini, whose previous work has not prepared us for anything on this kind of scale, takes a long, hard look at the western relationship with Africa in its continuing condescension and patronisation. Last year Matt Sharman’s The Observer, directed as here by Richard Eyre, touched on the same area, while Lyn Nottage’s Ruined highlighted women and rape as the victims of war.
Buffini goes one step further and places western attitudes right in the dock in the form of Theseus, the Athenian leader come to bring order and democracy to Eurydice’s collapsed Thebes, torn apart through civil war.
David Harewood, exuding alpha male, gives a commanding portrait of the modern western benefactor, dispensing aid at a price and with all the charisma and sexual appeal, as Nikki Amuka-Bird’s Theban President-elect puts it, "of a potential actor". Now where have we heard that before?
The text is filled with similarly cunning contemporary echoes. Overlaying Theban tragedies such as Phaedre, Antigone, Medea and The Bacchae myths with latter-day political parallels can appear complicated. But at its best Buffini’s design contextualises today’s behaviour in the light of the past, whist casting coruscating judgement on contemporary western attitudes.
Eyre’s skill ensures that a clear narrative emerges from this mayhem as compromises are struck, chaos threatens and helicopters whirr above. In a fantastic cast, Harewood apart there are striking performances from Madeline Affiah as a terrifying modern day girl soldier, Nikki Amuka-Bird as Eurydice leading a practically all-female cabinet (yes, it has actually happened in Liberia) and Bruce Myers as the hermaphrodite prophet, Tireasias. Stephen Warbeck’s music adds a further dimension. I wish we’d had more of it.
Megaera: Madeline Appiah.
Sergeant Miletus: Michael Wildman.
Junior Lieutenant Scud: Omar Brown/René Gray.
Eurydice: Nikki Amuka-Bird.
Prince Tydeus: Chuk Iwuji.
Pargeia: Rakie Ayola.
Haemon: Simon Manyonda.
Antigone: Vinette Robinson.
Ismene: Tracy Ifeachor.
Tiresias: Bruce Myers.
Harmonia: Alexia Khadime.
Polykleitos: Daniel Poyser.
Aglaea: Aicha Kossoko.
Thalia: Joy Richardson.
Euphrosyne: Pamela Nomvete.
Eunomia: Zara Tempest-Walters.
Bia: Karlina Grace.
Helia: Clare Perkins.
Eris: Irma Inniss.
Xenophares: Cornelius Macarthy.
Theseus: David Harewood.
Phaeax: Ferdinand Kingsley.
Talthybia: Jacqueline Defferary.
Enyalius: Victor Power.
Plautus: Daniel Fine.
Ichnaea: Jessie Burton.
Director: Richard Eyre.
Designer: Tim Hatley.
Lighting: Neil Austin.
Sound: Rich Walsh.
Music: Stephen Warbeck.
Musical Director: Akintayo Akinbode.
Choreographer: Scarlett Mackmin.
Company voice work: Jeannette Nelson.
Fight director: Kate Waters.