“If you intend to f*ck with the god of power, then make sure you don’t fall asleep besides him”
Any play that can use the epithet “your mother-f*cking brother” with complete accuracy has to be worth your attention and sure enough, Welcome to Thebes, a new play by Moira Buffini opening in the Olivier auditorium at the National Theatre, is more than equal to the challenge. The play is quite huge in scope, it looks at the role of women in politics, the state of Africa, the aftermath of war, the relationship between Africa and the West, the tragedy of child soldiers and it tells of them through the prism of Greek mythology, but relocated to the modern day and an unspecified (West) African state.
So we have the story of a female president-elect, Eurydice, struggling to exert herself in both her domestic situation in a country reeling from years of civil war, but also in the male-dominated world of international relations as she needs to establish links with global superpower Athens for much needed aid and investment by engaging with its charismatic leader, Theseus. The clearest analogy to make is with Liberia, the only African state to have an elected female leader of state in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who came to power after the concerted efforts of a mass movement of women hungry for peace after years of civil war. And if Thebes equates to Liberia, then Athens becomes the United States, the superpower and apparent bastion of democracy but unwilling to provide assistance without considerable caveats; Theseus being an Obama-like leader with a touch more arrogance.
Circumstances had led happily to me attending this with an old friend visiting from Canada who works in the conflict management arena and has a particular interest in developing West African countries so it could not have been better planned if we tried. And it was very interesting to see how convincing she found much of what was depicted onstage. Buffini is really alive to the alternative politics suggested by a female-dominated administration as currently demonstrated in Rwanda, and given colourful, amusing life by a trio of ace supporting performances. Aïcha Kossoko as the pragmatic, no-nonsense Foreign Secretary Aglaea, Joy Richardson as the sympathetic Thalia Minister of Justice and a warm Pamela Nomvete as Finance Minister Euprosyne were all excellent, struggling to come to terms with the horrors of a seemingly endless civil war and the situation they find themselves in in dealing with the bureaucracy of the world’s most powerful nation, but ultimately undaunted by their task in hand.
Nikki Amuka-Bird had a job in convincing me that she’d be ok given that the last time I saw her was in the execrable The Gods Weep but I was blown away by her powerful, passionate performance of a woman finding her way in “the politics of dire need”, fighting opposition from so many sides and desperate for Athens to believe in what she is doing in rebuilding her country, she fills the stage well with her presence. David Harewood is an actor of whom I am not particularly fond but he was impressive as the manipulative Theseus and the relationship and power games played between the two leaders were well done as they struggle to come to any kind of working agreement. Chuk Iwuji was terrifyingly convincing as the leader of the opposition, any resemblance to Charles Taylor I’m sure was totally coincidental(!) and his partner in crime, Rakie Ayola’s cobra-like Pargeia possessed of a glacial calm, brought a real sense of danger to the fragile political situation.
Elsewhere I enjoyed Jacqueline Defferary’s frustrated peacekeeper Talthybia, a woman who’s grown to love and understand the country she’s stationed in but as much a victim of patronising sexism from her own leader Theseus as the women of the ‘less-developed’ country, the stunning Tracy Ifeachor as Ismene desperate to get the hell out of Dodge and a raw, impassioned Madeline Appiah. Fans of Wicked might be interested to see that Alexia Khadime turns up in the ensemble here as the guide of the blind seer Tiresias and sings a couple of laments but she has little real role to play in the drama.
The use of Greek mythology is largely well done, bits from various tales have been stitched together here into a new whole and the analogy works, to most of us the world of child soldiers and violent civil unrest is as alien to us as the world of the Ancient Greeks and their gods and yet the beliefs in the spirit world is a connection between the two. However, the tension between the epic and the everyday was often highlighted by the disparities between the epic language used, with its talk of the gods and overarching concepts, and the modern day slang “you are my bitch” that permeates much of the conversation.
The set design was fairly simplistic: a ruined palace as a backdrop with a barren sand and rock-filled desolation surrounding. Given the staging opportunities in the Olivier, it initially felt a little underwhelming but in actual fact served to concentrate the attention on the acting and story-telling, something perhaps a little underestimated in productions like Women Beware Women with its giant revolve.
The quiet moments were often the strongest, the moving moment when the child soldier First Lieutenant was asked his real name, Ismene’s desperate attempt to leave the country where she is so unhappy, the Cabinet’s brief moment of self-doubt in the conference “we like to wear comfortable shoes…”. Welcome to Thebes offers a timely reminder that the developed world really does need to learn better ways of communicating with the Third World if we’re to ever to seriously tackle the problems of global poverty, but also adds a more universal thread in considering the greater role that women ought to play in politics, no matter the country. Recommended.
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes
Programme cost: £3
Note: there’s some strobing and a gunshot