Moira Buffini is a writer whose star is rising faster than the tension in a room packed with expectant England fans.
Her short play Handbagged is one of the highlights of the Women Power And Politics season at the Tricycle theatre, her film Tamara Drewe is set to be one of the big Brit hits of the year, and her new full-length play Welcome To Thebes, staged at the National’s Olivier Theatre, successfully blends the best parts of Greek myth, Shakespearean drama and Buffini’s own wicked, irreverent, intelligent wit.
Modern day Thebes is a country in ruin, decimated by a civil war; every family touched by death. From its ashes rises a new government, a government with the female Eurydice at its head and a cabinet with more women in positions of power than Britain’s current incumbents. This is a government that honestly wants to help its people, but can’t do so without the help of the slick, moneyed Athens, led by a be-suited, politically aware, lecherous Theseus, unaware of the Greek tragedy unfolding at home while he is away playing his political game.
Equality, politics, the nature of war, warlords, peacekeeping forces, destiny, humanity; Welcome To Thebes is epic in the scope of subjects it tackles in a way that, in the Olivier, immediately brings Shakespeare to mind. Speeches, delivered notably by Nikki Amuka-Bird as Eurydice, a woman who has risen phoenix-like from inconceivable hardship and grief to lead a nation, resonate with an evocative poetry, as she moves from being overwhelmed and afraid of her responsibility to finding the strength to stand up for what she believes in.
David Harewood delivers a decidedly dislikable Theseus, the very model of the career politician; charismatic and interested before a crowd, yet devious and exploitative when alone.
Amid the Greek myth and Bard-like banter, Welcome To Thebes also manages to have the most contemporary of feels to it. The cheeky knowingness in having Theseus call his son to go and check on his wife, Phedre, delighted the first night crowd, while the politics and views expressed in the piece are as contemporary and relevant as football-based angst.
From Chuk Iwuji’s charismatic shade-wearing blood-hungry warlord and Rakie Ayola’s ambitious, vengeful Pargeia – distinctly Macbethian in their outlooks – to Madeline Appiah’s anger-driven soldier Megaera and Bruce Myers’s ever-present seer Tiresias, the ensemble is riveting on the Tim Hatley-designed cracked-rock, crumbling-palace stage.
With hints of Reservoir Dogs and City Of God, a mythical setting with a plot seated firmly in reality and a cast of over 30, epic is a word that can justifiably be used to describe the production, and epic theatre is always a treat on the Olivier stage.