Review: Welcome to Thebes

Greek myth with an African twist

By John Nathan, July 1, 2010

Olivier, National Theatre, London SE1

There is no lack of ambition in Moira Buffini's take on ancient and modern tragedy. Her latest play recruits classical characters from Greek myth and sets them in modern, blood-soaked west Africa. Where ancient plot does not fit modern tragedy, Buffini has no qualms about making changes.

Some of the links to modern equivalents are obvious. Theseus (David Harewood) is an American-style president, the charismatic leader of democratic Athens who arrives by helicopter and is shadowed by secret service agents.

But for others you might have to do some research, or read the programme. Thebes was the place where Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, defied Creon, the city's ruler, by burying her warlord brother Polyneices. Here, it is depicted as modern-day Liberia which, following its devastating civil war, was led by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa's first elected female president. And so Buffini promotes Creon's wife Eurydice (Nikki Amuka-Bird) to the post of Liberian leader.

Perversely, Richard Eyre's production is at its most powerful when not achieving its objective of linking ancient and modern worlds. The dignity with which Eurydice begs the sexually predatory Theseus for aid is a fascinatingly unequal negotiation. But the evening is sunk by a fatal heavy-handedness. Yes, the classics speak powerfully about our modern world, is the play's lesson. And they can, but here we are led by the nose to draw the conclusion.

The scariest thing in the world is a child with a gun, and there are plenty of those in Africa. But Eyre's production evokes no fear. This is an evening that pretends to be concerned about the suffering of Africans, but is actually more interested in the cleverness of theatre.

(Tel: 020 7452 3000)

Last updated: 11:21am, July 1 2010