Loosely based on the recent political upheavals in Liberia, Moira Buffini’s Welcome to Thebes in the Olivier is a wonderfully rich and fascinating play about women in coalition politics, colonial compromise in post-revolutionary shake-out, and Third World self-determination.
Richard Eyre’s generous and colourful production is a feast of fear and favour surrounding the visit of Theseus, king of Athens, to the impoverished satellite country, Thebes, where Eurydice heads a female-dominated government fighting off a dangerous insurrection.
Characters from Greek mythology reverberate in a modern context: the blind prophet Tiresias (Bruce Myers, off the leash from Peter Brook in Paris) treads doomily on everyone’s heels, while the corpse of the unburied Polyneices, son of Oedipus, is an ever-present jolt to the ramifications of the sibling tragedies of Antigone (Vinette Robinson is “the mad one”) and Ismene (Tracy Ifeachor, sleeping, more or less, with the enemy).
Eurydice, their aunt, and widow of Creon, the legendary king of Thebes, is played with a pulsating awareness of changing circumstances, and a telling, brutish charm, by Nikki Amuka-Bird. With the visit of David Harewood’s magisterial Theseus, a Greek - or was that geek? - god in a designer suit, she has to balance the interests of her evolving nation with the necessary political support of an unwelcome neighbour.
The parallels with the women’s peace movement and the “gift” of democratic government by a super-power to a lesser one afflicted with apparent tyranny and economic meltdown are sturdily maintained until the plot takes on its own crazy development, with a terrifying shoot-out and the gathering insurgency led by Chuk Iwuji’s disenfranchised prince.
The play, especially in the first half, is a cunning mix of appropriated mythology and savage, satirical real politick, and the stage - as designed by Tim Hatley and lighting wizard Neil Austin - is a brilliant assemblage of a deteriorating palace, street-fighting turmoil and choric intervention. There’s none of the enforced misery of The Trojan Women; this is an allegorical and perceptive portrait of a nation in embryo.
None of it is particularly uplifting: if this is the way the world is going, then the sooner we tune out of it the better, you feel. But the performances have such spirit, backed up by the onstage percussive music of Stephen Warbeck, that you come out feeling ennobled by people’s perennial ability to see their struggle in the context of global and political tectonic shifts; and, in the theatre, the ongoing resonance of the great myths and stories.