Review – Welcome to Thebes, National Theatre

Thursday 17 June 2010

The Whingers were inspired to smuggle their recently purchased vuvuzela trumpets about their persons as they entered the Olivier auditorium on Tuesday evening.

Hard to believe, isn’t it, but they had actually watched the footie on Saturday night, missing England’s only goal as ITV HD’s useless coverage switched to an ad break just at the key moment, which of course meant the whole farrago was even duller than they could have possibly imagined.

But if Welcome to Thebes proved as dreary at least the Whingers would be able to whip out their horns and liven things up.

If England V USA was a bit embarrassing, at least the Brits made a huge impact on Sunday’s Tony Awards* and it was interesting to see a previous winner sitting at the back of the National Theatre‘s Olivier auditorium; Artistic director Sir Nicholas of Hytner, who won Best Direction of a Musical for Miss Saigon. As he cast his eye over Moira Buffini‘s new play his mind must surely have drifted back to that euphoric night in 1991. Why? Well, partly boredom. But also once again a helicopter lands and takes off rather convincingly live on stage, even if, despite the National’s huge resources, we don’t actually get to see his chopper this time.

Anyway, WTT is several Greek myths transported to civil war-torn Africa, or is it African civil war transported to Greek mythery? It’s a bit vague as to where exactly. Andrew wrote down South Africa (truth and reconciliation) before crossing it out and putting Rwanda (civil way) before crossing that out and giving up. Turns out it’s inspired by Liberia apparently and maybe there’s an allegorical nod to Iraq too? Of course there is. There always is.

But then again, with rather colourful costumes and geles, its live band and African sounds emanating from behind its set, perhaps it’s just an hors d’oeuvre for the National’s hugely anticipated FELA! (which didn’t do so well at the Tonys this weekend).

But whatever it is it doesn’t begin too promisingly, despite breaking the fourth wall (yawn), with its mildly amusing entreaties to turn off mobiles from mildly threatening gun-toting youths. “Guns are politics” here in the “conflict devastated” Thebes.

WTT is a bit of Antigone (which we’ve never seen and so had to be told that by someone better educated) with elements of Phedre or Phèdre, The Bacchae, Oepdipus (all of which we’ve seen and – amazingly – remembered) plus some other Greek tragedies thrown in. These are retold by by Buffini who has some fun with Stoppardian caprice to create her very own Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. But perhaps it’s all just an excuse to thrown in a couple of Oedipal gags?

Richard Eyre‘s staging was in pretty decent shape for a first preview and the acting generally fine if a little strident and shouty sometimes, Andrew felt there was too much hand waving but perhaps the cast had been united in “helicopter workshops” to create the effect from backstage and their enthusiasm spilled into their time on stage.

Set in war ravaged and impoverished Thebes the first democratically elected President, Eurydice (Nikki Amuka-Bird) promises peace to her people but is depending on a visit from Theseus (David Harewood, suitably arrogant and swaggering), first citizen of wealthy Athens and his aides to provide the aid she requires. But her opposition is waiting in the wings (probably flapping their arms about) and of course Theseus is motivated by greed.

But if the play’s the thing it does tend towards the rather dull. You can’t really blame actors who are saddled delivering lines containing “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission to Thebes”. Buffini’s deliberately, ironically, prosaic language (“There’s better ways to f**k these bitches up”) undermines the classical allusions so much that you do wonder why she bothered making them. Sometimes it just sounds wise but baffles: “In the face of destruction, the only thing humanity can do is to create.” Really? And given Greece’s recent economic woes “Athens’ time will come” doesn’t seem all that likely. Perhaps “Athens’ time is up” would be more the thing.

On the plus side, someone gets to say “You’re the nearest thing to Dionysus that I’ve ever seen” which should be the title of Gladys Knight’s next single.

Anyway, reluctantly returning for the second act Phil noted that Prince Tydeus (Chuk Iwuji – rather good) gets to wear a face pack. The volume control on the actors’ voices is turned up even more to “shout” level and a hermaphrodite blind beggar, late of Oedipus, Tiresias (Bruce Myers) does a rather embarrassing dance.  There is a gunshot (which caused Andrew to spill wine on his knee).  Somebody dies, blood is smeared on his body and Athenian diplomat Talthybia (Jacqueline Defferary) emerges from the carnage with a blouse resembling a Rorschach Test. It’s too distracting for words that Creon is pronounced “crayon”.

Buffini’s play does show how the west takes advantage of the third world for its own ends, how greed is the dominant factor when it attempts to sort out inner conflicts with its so-called aid, and that all sides have a vested interest. These are all quite valid observations (again) but we suspect – given the demographic of a National Theatre audience – that those watching already know these things. One didn’t have to look too far to find a woman, hair scraped back in a certain way, leaning forward earnestly, elbow on knee, chin resting on fist, striking an intellectual “listening pose”. But interestingly enough, unable to maintain “the look”, said woman was slumped back in her seat for the second act.

The National has been very much back of form recently with terrific productions of revivals but not much luck with new work, and no doubt some will applaud this for its worthiness and topicality, but we would much rather see something that didn’t plod quite so distractedly and something which nailed some artistic colours to its mast.

You’re very welcome to Welcome to Thebes, thank you very much.


*Congratulations to Michael Grandage for his slew of Tony Awards for him, the Donmar, Eddie Redmayne and those who worked on Red. And to Sonia Friedman and David Babani for their win as producers of La Cage Aux Folles, Terry Johnson, Douglas Hodge and Catherine Zeta Jones of course. Even if poor Babani was drowned out by the orchestra just as he got his chance to say something on stage at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday evening. And we don’t believe a word that that Michael Riedel says about it.



15 Responses to “Review – Welcome to Thebes, National Theatre”

  1. Lord Andrew Lloyds Slipper Sniffer Says:

    Blimey. West End Whingeing is getting awfully Nunn. Couldn’t you have stuck at least one interval in that torrent?

  2. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    LALSS, If we’d put in an interval you would have left.

  3. Ken Hunt Says:

    I know this is a tad cheeky – but I do have the Whinger’s permission……

    Is anyone interested in half price tickets to “Stomp” on Thursday 8th July? The tix are normally £49.50 but I have 10 left for £25 (I got them at a group rate). £5 from each ticket goes to Oxfam as part of a series of charity events we are organising. If you are interested in one/some/all of the tix, please contact me on – I don’t want to clutter up the Whinger’s wall! Cheers, Ken

  4. Kevin Says:

    You guys are hilarious. But Nick Hytner didn’t win the Tony for Miss Saigon , he won for Carousel, Tommy Tune won the year of Saigon for The Will Rogers Follies.

  5. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    Whoops, my mistake but at least he’s still got a Tony squirrelled away in his house somewhere.

  6. Baldassaro Says:

    Sounds ghastly. Normally, I would walk across broken glass to see a Greek tragedy, even one with lots of “look, this is just like nowadays!” moments in it. But this just sounds like a farrago. You’ve confirmed me in my initial instinct to give it a body swerve.

  7. JohnnyFox Says:

    Get you and your geles. In Rochdale we call that a headscarf, and usually match it to our pinny.

    I do hope though that geles will be de rigeur at the next WEW annual party. That ceiling downstairs in Koha could do with a good collective dusting …

    and now for some fashion tips:

  8. Andrew Roberts Says:

    This is quite a depressing review. Here’s a new play with terrific jokes which adroitly plays with greek tragedy to dramatise the relationship between the first world and africa engagingly and sends you out to find more about liberia (though not your reviewer!)

    In short it’s a terrific evening at the theatre and should be celebrated, rather than given that world-weary ‘we’ve seen it all before’ treatment.

    It’s not perfect – I found the ending weak, and some of the acting is better than others. I wasn’t so convinced by Eurydice. And you’re right to suggest that there may be a lack of profundity here. There’s nothing here to match the wonderful characterisation of Malcolm in the recent Dunsinane for example.

    However I really do think you should lighten up!

  9. Ted Reilly Says:

    I saw this play on 21 June and have just found this review.It seems to me to spot on. Joan Bakewell was just on Front Row on Radio 4 supporting the general positive reviews which I found in the broadsheets. It was a good play but if 20 minutes and five characters had been cut it would have been a great play.

  10. Wynn Wheldon Says:

    Nothing would have made this a great play, principally because it lacks any drama whatsoever. If you like being preached to then you might enjoy it. It is what David Mamet calls “pseudodrama” – subsidised mediocrity designed to make the audience feel good about itself. This is the State in all its mediocrity. Unchallenging, line-towing, orthodoxy, and as dull as that makes it sound.

  11. Richard Thomson Says:

    I didn’t even make it to the interval. The play is awful and the actors flounder – loudly. Totally without drama, conflict (even if it’s set in a conflict zone) or human interest. It drones. The NT maintains its embarrassing record on new plays. This should never have got on to the Olivier stage.

  12. Abel Says:

    The first professional play I’ve ever walked out of in London, in 25+ years of going to the theatre in the city. Some of the actors (notably David Harewood) manage to struggle valiantly against an inept script – patronising, preach-y, just poorly written. And as for the direction – did Richard Eyre actually spend any time whatsoever with the company? Truly, truly awful.

  13. David Says:

    It is awful.

    All the professional reviews use the word ‘ambitious’ in their introduction. It’s ‘breathtakingly ambitious’, ‘amazingly ambitious’.

    Tell you what…ambition does not always mean success.

    If I were being facetious I’d tell you I had the ambition to colonize Mars by 2015. As it is, I’ve only managed to cobble together a few pieces of bark in my shed. I am, however, breathtakingly ambitious.

    Still in the shed is where Welcome to Thebes finds itself (if only Ms Buffini had been funded by Nasa).

    Don’t get me wrong, she can write very good plays. ‘Dinner’, for example, is excellent. However, I cannot believe that she thought this ludicrous mish-mash of pretension and earnestness would work.

    I wrote a review on ‘whatsonstage’.

    I copy/paste it below to save my own time, and hopefully other people’s. Please do not support this abomination that brings a bad name to the National.

    My Whatsonstage review:

    I must disagree with the other reviews. I found the production pretentious, patronising, absolutely lacking any wit and quite dull. I’m a regular theatre goer and have a classical education, so it is not from lack of intelligence that I dislike this play. The play seems to have been conceived from the thought that ‘oh, some Greek myth is a bit like Africa’. The play never gets further than that and merely attempts to entwine myth with a generic African war setting. The dialogue is tiring, with an air of knowing condescension, and the acting is generally wooden, but with a script like this I can see why the actors struggle. There are attempts at humour, but the jokes fall flat under the weight of the dead hand of pretension. I have seen far better plays about Africa at the National, none of which tried to involve Greek tragedy for the writer’s self-indulgence. This mix does not work. To see a blend of Greek myth and ‘other’ I would defer to Mighty Aphrodite by Woody Allen. Much though he might try, it never becomes ‘up itself;, which is where Welcome to Thebes unfortunately resides. Save your time and money and go to a good restaurant instead.

  14. Charles Slovenski Says:

    I saw it last weekend. It was a shame the house was half-empty (kind of like your wine glasses lately, maybe a little less of that and you’d enjoy the stage more) since the acting was terrific, and the script wasn’t as terrible and certainly not as boring as you claim. Your description of the woman in the house paying attention to the play is, well, just plain mean. You naughty boys.

  15. […] End Whinger lo dio tres copas de tinto de cada cinco y si fueran profesores escribiendo un informe escolar habrían puesto, ‘buen intento pero podría […]

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