Olivier Theatre, London SE1
Opened 22 June, 2010

Moira Buffini’s reworking of Greek myths sits well in the Olivier’s Travelex £10 season alongside Women Beware Women. Buffini shows a world as amoral as that of Jacobean tragedy, but without the distancing relief of laughter: here, when we are allowed grim chuckles, they serve to re-emphasise our connection with such a world, not to sever us from it. Welcome To Thebes is the most unpleasant play I have seen for some considerable time, and the most riveting.

Buffini uses several classical stories: mainly that of Antigone, but the events of Hippolytus occur offstage during the action, and stories such as those of the Bacchae and, of course, Oedipus constantly surface as “history”. Her Thebes, however, is an African state trying painfully to rebuild itself after being shattered by a series of bloody, pointless civil wars. We see a woman and a boy toting guns (in fact, they come through the auditorium to threaten us at gunpoint to turn our mobile phones off), recounting the number of times they have changed paramilitary allegiance and the atrocities they have witnessed and suffered, and most chilling of all is their matter-of-fact, even defiant tone. Then the country’s first democratically elected president, Eurydice (who corresponds to Creon in the tales) attempts to hold talks on reconstruction aid with the government of Athens, led by the all too urbane “first citizen” Theseus. Warlordism and the causelessness of so much of this fighting mesh unexpectedly well with the sense one often gets from Greek myth of misfortune and revenge as a juggernaut, the unstoppable force of history ploughing brutally through the potential of the present. And every atom of it is painfully recognisable. We do not need to know, for instance, that Eurydice corresponds vaguely to Liberia’s elected president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in order to see how casually oppressive are Theseus’ and opposition warlord Tydeus’ treatment of women, nor to follow precisely the network of antipathies in order to understand the second-act scene in which suddenly everyone seems to have drawn a gun on everyone else.

Richard Eyre’s production is unflinching in its desolation. The cast ranges from Chuk Iwuji as a kind of blood-boltered matinee idol Tydeus and David Harewood as essence-of-hollow-politico Theseus to Bruce Myers as a fluting Tiresias and a chorus of female ministers behind Nikki Amuka-Bird’s Eurydice. If Buffini’s verse sometimes grows a little purple, it is the purple of a bruise. Ancient and modern, atavism and civilisation, reason and compulsion, myth and reality constantly clash and send out sparks, as we sit amid the storm, racked by this demonstration that we cannot choose only one set of values and wish away the others.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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