Thursday, June 17, 2010

Welcome to Thebes by Moira Buffini, Olivier Theatre, 15-June-2010 – Directed by Richard Eyre

This is a play of impressive ambition, essentially a retelling of the Greek play (with surrounding mythology) Antigone and some offstage and Theseus bits from Phaedre, all against a modern backdrop of a bitter African civil war. On stage we see Thebes as depicted as a ruined presidential palace, a remnant of some forgotten peaceful time.
There are lots of juicy parallels and clever connections if you like your Greek Mythology; In the civil war seven militias descended on the city like the Seven Against Thebes; The three most senior ministers are named for the three Graces; The body of the warlord Polynices is decorated with a necklace of fingers echoing the cursed necklace of Harmonia (first Queen of Thebes; An avenging child soldier is named after one of the furies and other characters are named after gods, goddesses and suitable figures from Greek Mythology.
In this play Athens becomes America, David Harewood's Theseus an Obama or Clinton-like First Citizen (though smoother and much more of a political operator) and the offstage Sparta becomes China, each vying to help and probably dominate the ruined Thebes.
This is a well thought-out piece, you can see the links between the Theban wars with their gods-inspired viciousness and some of the recent West African (and elsewhere) civil wars with their strange dressings-up (soldiers would paint their faces or dress as women in battle). Each descended into chaos and in some cases cannibalism.
For all this play's cleverness and ambition I think it is let down by the language. The mix between the epic and the contemporary language didn't really work for me, even though the play worked well in terms of setting. Maybe the epic language wasn't epic and stirring enough to counterpoise the jumps to the modern slang. Then again, powerful heightened language may have jarred too much with speech that used phrases like “you are now my bitch”.

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