Interesting that on the two occasions the Olivier Theatre has played host to new plays by women writers, both should tackle ambitious subjects and, understandably, prominently feature women.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Her Naked Skin (2008) dramatised the trials and tribulations of the militant suffragette movement in 1913, and in Welcome to Thebes, Moira Buffini connects the dots between contemporary politics and Greek tragedy.
The ambiguous question she leaves dangling and unanswered is how much of what happens to us is preordained by an implacable fate or man-made.
Though the play is set in the 21st century in an African city she calls Thebes, the situation is clearly inspired by recent events in Liberia and the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who founded a women’s peace movement, and who. after suffering political exile, became Africa’s first elected female president.
In Buffini’s modern take on Sophocles’ Antigone, Thebes’ newly elected leader is called Eurydice (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who, in the aftermath of a bloody civil war, turns to powerful Athens (read America) to help her establish a new democracy.
The leader of this super-power is Theseus (David Harewood), a cocksure clump of testosterone whose tunnel vision sees no further than the profit to be derived from such an alliance.
The arranged summit meeting, heralded by the arrival of a helicopter carrying Theseus and his delegates, is, however, compromised by Prince Tydeus (Chuck Iwuji), the leader of the opposition, who sabotages Eurydice’s plans by belabouring the shocking fact that Eurydice refuses to allow the rotting corpse of her vanquished warlord brother Polynices, to be buried, thereby perpetuating a regime of chaos and anarchy which makes mock of her impassioned talk of ‘truth and reconciliation’.
Throughout the evening Buffini injects any number of touches – from mobile phones, sanitising gel, internet websites, and the aforementioned helicopter to help contrast the ancient with the modern, and draws humour of sorts from a trio of very young soldiers who, before the auditorium lights dim, harangue the audience to switch off their phones and stop rummaging through their programmes.
Nonetheless, an air of self-conscious contrivance prevails as the author attempts to prove her thesis that nothing changes human nature, especially men behaving badly.
Played out against Tim Hatley’s operatic-looking ruin of a set, and acted in operatic fashion by a large cast, the best of whom are Nikki Amuka-Bird, David Harewood and Chuck Iwuji, Richard Eyre’s rock-solid direction does the best it can for a play whose ambitions cannot disguise its woolly thinking, often tiresome dialogue, and, most damaging of all, failure to involve us emotionally with any of the characters.
Olivier Theatre (National Theatre)
CLIVE HIRSCHHORN. Courtesy of This Is London.
Welcome to Thebes at the National Theatre in London