Review: Welcome to Thebes

Welcome to Thebes
by Moira Buffini
National Theatre

Set ‘somewhere in Africa’ in 2010, Welcome to Thebes uses Greek mythology as a cipher through which to view the very modern issues surrounding conflict in developing nations. Euridice, newly-elected president of war-ravaged Thebes, is hosting Theseus, ‘First Citizen’ of Athens at a congress during which she and her (mostly female) senators will explain their needs and ask for his help.  Yet the peace Euridice has established is fragile, and the opposition has not been effectively wiped out. 

The problems facing Thebes are many and varied, as are the themes playwright Moira Buffini attempts to explore in the 2hr 35min production. While the constant bombardment of issues – blindness and sight; equality and respect; freedom and destiny; justice and retribution; power and strength; woman and man; trust and reconciliation; death; greed; hope; identity – gives a sense of the enormity of Euridice’s task as she seeks to lead her still-volatile people, the play may have benefited from focusing on just one or two.  For much of the time it feels as if it is struggling to keep track of its own themes and ideas, let alone all the 26 characters and their plots, subplots and back-stories – for it is very clear that Buffini knows all of her characters well and has, for the most part, created rounded people, not caricatures. 

Paring it down may have had the added advantage of giving certain of the actors space to find the heart of their characters and portray them with more conviction.  My friend and I overheard another couple discussing the play as we left, and agreed with them that we weren’t entirely sure whether the armed youths who open the play and re-appear at key moments throughout are supposed to be threatening or amusing.  They certainly raise a few laughs, but is that intentional in a scene-setting speech explaining how terrifying it is to be a citizen of Thebes?

This lack of tonal clarity persists throughout the play.  There is one pin-drop moment when Polykleitos confronts Prince Tydeus, the cruel leader of the opposition, with the tale of how the latter brutally killed Polykleitos’ son before his eyes, but for the most part the emotional level is set to ‘shouting’, and rather than being taken on a journey, the audience is catapulted from one (loud) crisis to another.  Even the (very) strong language was rarely powerful or shocking, getting absorbed into the general volume.

In some plays, this would be a device used to disguise a lack of decent lines, but here it threatens to overwhelm Buffini’s poetic, rhythmic, highly quotable writing – “[Politics is just] games of Consequence; experiments with human lives”, “Welcome, blind traveller, welcome to the country of the blind”, “Forgive me if I say it, but I’ve heard it all before”, “We must believe that we can change; we have to risk our trust”, “Greed that eats will eat itself”, “I’m just the man who’s standing here, his pockets full of dreams.”

There is a huge amount to this play, and despite the lack of focus, it gallops along at a tremendous pace, leaving little opportunity for the audience to feel restless or check their watches. I can’t help feeling, though, that it would do better as a series of three shorter pieces, each focusing on one subset of characters and through them exploring a family of themes.  This would allow Buffini’s writing space to dance, could shine a light more searchingly on the issues she wants us to consider, and would produce a far more powerful and enduring piece of theatre.

3/5

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