“Welcome to Thebes” is bursting with contemporary resonances. That fierce boy soldier could be from Rwanda, that power-dressing woman could be Zimbabwe’s Grace Mugabe, the country returning to democracy could be Iraq. But check out the cast list: Eurydice? Theseus? Antigone? Is this Ancient Greece? Playwright Moira Buffini has yoked characters from ancient myth to modern politics in order to ask major political questions about power, destiny and change. The not-so-minor problem is the play’s lack of action.
The closest parallel is that of the central character, Eurydice (Nikki Amuka-Bird), the newly elected president who, dressed like most of the cast in African clothes, echoes Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state, who rose to power in Liberia five years ago.
Eurydice, the former leader of the opposition who never sought power, finds herself struggling to heal gaping wounds in her fearsomely impoverished country, which is teetering on the brink of civil war. But help is at hand with the controversial arrival of Theseus (David Harewood), leader of Athens, now a Western superpower. A black actor in a dark suit, red tie and English accent, he’s a cross between President Obama and Tony Blair.
Theseus is as smugly superior as he is insensitive to the country he has been helicoptered into help. And his character, written almost wholly satirically, provides laughs that are as welcome as they are unexpected.
Happily, Buffini has bigger ideas to play with than merely taking potshots at Western foreign policy. In the dangerously expository first half, she uses a cast of 26 to set up countless tensions among factions as diverse as the couple now leading the opposition (Chuk Iwuji and Rakie Ayola, like the Macbeths, only nastier), the frighteningly volatile militia, doom-mongering soothsayer Tiresias (Bruce Myers) and the trigger-happy Athenian security team.
Richard Eyre’s production is strong on moment-by-moment, well-honed detail. He coaxes witty performances from within Eurydice’s all-female cabinet, notably Aicha Kossoko’s powerfully skeptical foreign minister and Pamela Nomvete’s prim but salacious finance minister. What he cannot do is disguise the absence of developing drama.
Buffini’s often vividly poetic writing asks necessary questions about the perils of regime change, the fragility of democracy, the corruption of power. But conflicting positions are presented rather than dramatized; thus, scenes and overall momentum never build. A second-half setpiece suddenly finds half the cast brandishing guns and threatening to kill the rest. Simultaneously absurd and genuinely frightening, its immediate tension points up what has been hitherto missing.
Toward the end, Madeline Appiah, as a fierce female warrior, is given just three lines but, alone in near-darkness, with the horror of the past flowing from her lips, she holds the entire theater in thrall. It’s a rare moment of true power in a play that seems at least one draft away from dramatic cogency. For much of the rest of the ambitious evening, audiences are taken to a new place but given neither a map nor a fully satisfying journey.