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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
WELCOME TO THEBES
at the National (Olivier)

CLASSIC MODERN OR MODERN CLASSIC
By JOHN NATHAN

  Chuk Iwuji and Tracy Ifeachor/ Ph: Nobby Clark

There are two good reasons to revive plays from the classical canon. One is to show how little things change. The other is to show how much things change. Moira Buffini’s new play does both.
 
Buffini has audaciously conscripted classical characters and dropped them – by helicopter, in the case of Theseus – into a modern setting. This place is called Thebes, but Buffini has drawn on modern Liberia to make her point about how ancient atrocity is replicated by modern tragedy. Here, a little homework would help to draw the connections. Or you can just read the programme.
 
In 2005, Liberia’s macho warlords were replaced by the women’s peace campaigner Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Buffini’s play finds the perfect ancient reflection of this in Euridyce’s regime in Thebes. We have our modern equivalents, is Buffini’s point.
 
So when David Harewood’s imposing Athenian Theseus lands with a coterie of secret service agents and a stirring speech or two about spreading democracy, it’s not just Athens that comes to mind but America. Although, better to resist the idea that just because Harewood is black, his Theseus is Obama.
 
In mannerism, character and bearing, Harewood’s leader of the free world is nothing like America’s. True, this Theseus wears a sharp suit and says statesman-like things about human rights. But when he is on his own with Eurydice (Nikki Amuka-Bird), he is a sexual predator who gives his host a choice: put out or risk losing aid for your country.
 
His agenda to save the world is motivated as much by macho posturing as a warlord’s agenda to destroy it. Part of Buffini’s agenda is to show the damage done to the world by men. But rather like Richard Eyre’s production, the parallels drawn between old Thebes and this one are grindingly laboured at times.
 
It doesn’t matter that it was in fact Eurydice’s husband Creon who actually ruled Thebes. For it was he, not Eurydice, as happens here, who condemned the dead warlord Polynices to purgatory by refusing his body a burial. Although Antigone (a scarily insane Vinette Robinson) in this version still defies the edict. And without the change the parallel between Eurydice and Liberia’s Ellen Johnson would not work.
 
But the lesson that the Greeks have a lot to say about our modern world has been made so superbly well by other, equally modern takes of the Greek tragedies – Katie Mitchell’s searing Iphigenia at Aulis comes to mind – during Buffini’s you cannot help but ask, why not just put on Antigone?
 
If Richard Eyre’s production had been more inventive, this complaint might have been a passing thought. But from the moment that shouting, gun-toting children strut among the audience yelling at us to switch off our phones, you sort of know that whatever surprises Eyre’s production has in store are not going to be much of a surprise.
 
The sense here is of a play that is excited by the possibility of drama to span eons and say profound things about them. But I’d rather the play was more interested in its subject.
 
 


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