For the last three Thursdays I've been seeing the National Theatre's big summer shows in the reverse order to which they opened; so after last week's dreary Danton's Death it's back to the Olivier for a different kind of tragedy, and this year's only premiere of a new play in the £10 season. Moira Buffini retells the Antigone myth, but with a couple of twists to the tale, primarily that of moving Athens and Thebes to modern-day Africa. Taking her cue from the horrific violence and recurrence of rape in Greek mythology, Buffini sees a parallel in those African countries that have endured decades of rule by warlords, with particular reference to Liberia, where these violent men were replaced by a largely female government, bringing hope that the testosterone-fuelled bloodshed was in the past (although they didn't prove immune to scandal themselves.) Accordingly, she also replaces Antigone's traditional nemesis, Creon, killing him off before the play starts and having his widow Eurydice¹ as the democratically elected President of Thebes. And while she does order that Antigone's brother remain unburied, with most of the consequences from the original myth, this story ends up being not the be-all and end-all of the play, but a catalyst for the real tension.
The play promotes Eurydice from bit-part player to lead role, and Nikki Amuka-Bird confidently holds things together, even if her character can't. Giving an added dimension to the parts of the story taken from mythology is her dealing with David Harewood's Theseus, the First Citizen of Athens, a great power and capable of helping the ravaged country out if a deal can be struck. In a strong cast, also notable are Vinette Robinson as Antigone, Chuk Iwuji as a charismatic leader of the opposition whose past as a warlord is barely concealed beneath the surface, and Jacqueline Defferary as an Athenian diplomat initially in the background but with a subtle story arc of her own. The whole thing has an epic sweep and shows that Buffini has been able to separate Ancient Greek mythology from Ancient Greek theatre, not telling the story in anything like the enclosed, very discreet way that we're used to seeing it - like the situation, the storytelling is messy, but for the most part successfully so. There's some in-jokes about the likes of Phaedra and Oedipus (including the most accurate usage of the word "motherfucker" you're likely to see) but I was torn about the extent to which the Phaedra story actually crept in to the action - I agree that you need to see Theseus caught up in the web of fate he's been an outside observer of for most of the play, but I'm not sure how well someone unfamiliar with the myth would have followed that strand. Overall though it's a hugely ambitious piece of work that, aside from being a bit over-long, succeeds in what it sets out to do and is helped by strong performances and Richard Eyre, returning to the National to direct a confident production.
Welcome to Thebes by Moira Buffini is in repertory until the 12th of September at the National Theatre's Olivier.
¹not the same Eurydice from the Orpheus story