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.