REVIEW: WELCOME TO THEBES
By Kito Johnson
Thursday, August 26, 2010.
I never really had much time for critics, having long subscribed to the view of the late American writer Dale Carnegie, who once opined that: ‘‘Any fool can criticise, and most often do.’’ However, in these financially constrained times, a writer quickly realises that one cannot live by moral conviction alone, and so, without fuss, I ventured to the National Theatre last Thursday to review (read: critique) playwright Moira Buffini’s latest production.
Although it draws heavily on inspiration from ancient Greek mythology, Welcome to Thebes is set in the modern era, and in reality, could be any number of African states. In no small part to Thebes’ female protagonist, however, comparisons have inevitably been made to the role played by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in leading post-conflict Liberia following the years of infamy under Charles Taylor.
At the end of a long civil war, Thebans have emerged both psychologically and physically scarred, and now look eagerly to their new president Eurydice, brilliantly played by Nikki Amuka-Bird, to provide some stability to the stricken nation. Eurydice and her government must somehow hold the fragile peace together, amid rumblings of discontent being sowed by forces loyal to the deceased dictator General Polynices. Furthermore, the beleaguered Eurydice knows that without a massive financial injection from Thebes’ wealthy neighbour Athens, she is doomed to fail.
Welcome to Thebes is littered with many of the truths, ironies and double-standards that exist within politics and international relations today. The play opens with Thebes preparing to receive Theseus, the President of Athens, when the discovery of Polynices’ corpse by government militiamen throws the preparations into disarray. Eurydice is adamant that Polynices’ body must not be buried, so that his soul can remain in torment for eternity as punishment for the heinous crimes that he has committed. Eurydice is thus caught between her thirst for revenge- Polynices killed her husband- and her own government’s much vaunted peace and reconciliation initiative.
Eurydice’s miscalculation is seized upon by her political opponents; namely Prince Tydeus, one of Polynices’ former henchmen, and Pargeia, the dictator’s widow who divides her time between opposition senate duties in the Theban parliament, and being Tydeus’ lover. Both begin to plot Eurydice’s downfall, and it is into this cauldron of mistrust and skullduggery, that the president from Athens arrives.
David Harewood’s Theseus is a smarmy, self-righteous president who believes that he is God’s gift, and as he and his entourage arrive to great pomp and ceremony, Theseus can scarcely hide his contempt for the impoverished Thebans. Buffini’s play is brilliantly written and highlights all too well the pressing issues faced by a war-ravaged, third-world nation desperate to attract the financial attentions of a much larger power.
Theseus, however, seems much more concerned with playing the mighty international statesman, than he is with the plight of the Theban people. His claims to support the rule of law and democracy ring hollow as he is all too willing to countenance proposals put forward by the former warlord Prince Tydeus and his floozy Pargeia. Dismayed by Theseus’ lack of interest in Thebes, Eurydice instructs her cabinet to seek a hearing with the Spartans, who are another regional power and sworn enemies of Athens.
Theseus is livid when he learns of this and demands an explanation from Eurydice. The interim leader is unapologetic and tells Theseus: ‘‘Our people go to bed with hunger craving in their bellies every night. Right now we’ll entertain any regime that gives us means to feed them. I am president of famine, first citizen of rubble plague and debt.’’
There has been criticism that Buffini’s play tries to tackle too many issues at once; with some of the subplots leaving the piece convoluted and uneven at times. I hold no brief for the playwright, but will say in her defence that the chaos seen in the middle acts must indeed be a true reflection of the realities of trying to stitch together a society torn apart by decades of fighting, traumatised by the horrors of war, mistrustful of each other, and with barely a penny to its name.
The entire cast deliver an indefatigable rendition; so full of flair, energy and spirit, that the 2hours 35 minutes running time do just that. With faultless performances throughout, and under the superb direction of Richard Eyre, Welcome to Thebes is able to combine mythic history and present day reality to deliver a production of the very highest order.
Kito Johnson, a Trinidadian, is a freelance journalist based in the UK. He specialises in Caribbean affairs and has written extensively for the Trinidad Guardian in his native land, as well as the Voice Newspapers, BBC Caribbean and The New Black Magazine here in the UK.