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Review Round-up: NT Goes Greek with Thebes

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Former artistic director Richard Eyre has returned again to the National Theatre (after last year's The Observer) to direct the premiere of Moira Buffini's Welcome to Thebes, which opened in the Olivier on Tuesday (22 June, previews from 15 June).

Set in the present day, but inspired by ancient myth, the play offers a “passionate exploration of an encounter between the world’s richest and poorest countries, set in the aftermath of a brutal war”. Faced with an impoverished population, a shattered infrastructure and a volatile army, the first democratic president of Thebes, Eurydice (Nikki Amuka-Bird), promises peace to her nation. Without the aid of Theseus (David Harewood), the leader of the vastly wealthy state of Athens, she doesn’t stand a chance. But Theseus is arrogant, mercurial and motivated by profit.

Running as part of the Travelex £10 season, Welcome to Thebes continues in rep until 18 August 2010.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “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 … 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 … 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."
  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) – “Moira Buffini is only the second woman to have a new work staged in the Olivier and no one could accuse her of failing to rise to the challenge … Buffini, giving a modern twist to Greek myth and Attic tragedy, explores the plight of a female protagonist who becomes the first democratic president of a third-world country that is emerging from a brutal civil war … The result is an admirably ambitious, fascinating (if uneven) piece, premiered in a vivid, expertly marshalled production by Richard Eyre which is alive to the urgency of the play's politics and to its engaging streak of iconoclastic humour … Performed on Tim Hatley's spectacular set, of wrecked palace and glowering sky, Welcome to Thebes plays some irreverent tricks. Mischievously, the tragedy of Phaedra and Hippolytus is filtered through mobile phone calls that keep Theseus briefed about problems back home. In a running sight-gag, the blinded Haemon unerringly chats up the wrong girl.”
  • Libby Purves in The Times (five stars) - “Moira Buffini’s strange and daring play is directed with brio by Sir Richard Eyre: it is moving, wise, funny, horrifying, and studded with beautifully judged swearwords … The reason it works - apart from the willingness to twist tragedy into sudden black absurdity and back again - is not only that the myths of Ancient Greece have a lot in common with African conflicts: tribalism, superstition, breathtaking brutalities. It takes you wider. Eurydice, fresh from house arrest, evokes Aung San Suu Kyi; the arguments over justice versus a clean slate bring us home to the Saville Inquiry; the Western intervention echoes Afghanistan … It’s that sort of play: full of resonances you weren’t expecting, jokes you didn’t see coming, tension becoming absurd and then tragic when a conference table becomes the bitterest of biers … Go. Take a politician.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Buffini uses classical characters to create a contemporary political fable. Thebes is presented as an African country emerging from civil war into democracy under the leadership of a president, Eurydice, with a definite feminist agenda … But, although Buffini explores the timeless oppositions between small and large states and order and chaos, there is a conceptual problem at the heart of her play. She clearly endorses the political logic of Eurydice's argument that 'there's no such thing as destiny, only change'. Yet, because of her characters' classical origins, you feel they are fulfilling a preordained destiny articulated by the sightless seer, Tiresias. Even if Buffini can never quite overcome the mythical baggage of the past, her play has a sustained narrative dynamic and is well-directed and designed by Richard Eyre and Tim Hatley … There is also a host of vibrant performances.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “The play combines elements of Greek tragedy with the story of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who rose to power in Liberia five years ago as a result of the efforts of a feminist peace movement … The contemporary resonance is obvious: we think not only of West Africa but also ofObama and Iraq. Yet the classical imagery persists, and so does an unsettlingly oedipal notion of destiny … David Harewood is imposing as Theseus: muscular, poised, arrogant. He conveys pomp. As Eurydice, Nikki Amuka-Bird has a cool dignity. There’s appealing work throughout the large cast, marshalled with characteristic fluency by Richard Eyre. Particularly eye-catching are Chuk Iwuji and Daniel Poyser … The drama has no true centre and, although the story is impressive in scale, the writing is bumpy - at times incendiary but marred by cliché. It’s busy and interesting yet also uncomfortably baggy. ”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (three stars) –“There is no point in pretending this is an easy evening. It combines the torment and tension of classical Greek tragedy with an all too recognisable account of the bloodshed of modern Africa … Yet there is also wit and black humour on offer here, and a palpable feeling that the dramatist, Moira Buffini, is extending herself to the limits … This is one of those plays where you need to do a lot of homework to get full value from the evening … Yet the play, powerfully directed by Richard Eyre with a terrific design by Tim Hatley that suggests both an ancient Greek palace and a war-torn African city, undoubtedly grips. Nikki Amuka-Bird is charismatic and moving as Eurydice. Harewood is wonderfully funny in the scene in which Theseus tries to seduce his Theban hostess, and affecting as he realises his own impending tragedy.”
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