THEBES is emerging from a long civil war, ten years of unspeakable brutalities, particularly against children and women. Think Bosnia, Congo, Sudan. Years of massacres, starvation, the total breakdown of civil society.
Now there is a fledgling government, led by a small group of brave women – widows, women who have survived rape, watched their babies killed, seen their husbands and brothers brutalised, women who have somehow retained shreds of humanity, decency and hope.
Their powerful neighbour, Athens, is coming to pay an official visit to mark the inauguration of their new president. Athens is a democracy. The Theban women aspire to bring democracy and peace to their land. But first they need help – money to rebuild the shattered infrastructure, restore running water, reopen schools and factories.
Welcome to Thebes.
First staged at the National Theatre in 2010, Moira Buffini’s play is an epic drama, which brilliantly fuses the great myths of ancient Greek tragedy with 21st century experience of war, peace and realpolitik.
Through characters who are archetypes of the early drama, but also painfully, dangerously, heroically human, Buffini creates a world that is ancient and modern, frightening, recognisable, shocking but not without hope.
The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School production, directed by Lucy Pitman-Wallace, is one of the 2018 graduating shows, many of whose students we first saw in an outstanding Under Milk Wood two years ago. This is an exceptionally talented cohort, and the range of talents is fully on show here.
The central characters are President Eurydice, the widow of the murdered King Creon, who saw her young son killed, played by Emma Prendergast, a strong characterisation of a woman who is struggling to reconcile her own demons with her belief in peace and a future for her country; and Theseus, First Citizen of Athens, played by Alexander Mushore, with an assured and layered performance of the ultimate politician whose weakness is his passion for his new young wife,
Around them are Eurydice’s surviving son, the blinded Haemon, played with poignant patience and careful movement by James Bradwell, quiet Ismene (Anna Munden) and angry damaged Antigone (Bonnie Baddoo), the sister-daughters of the late King Oedipus. Their brother Polynices has been one of the rebel leaders and is now dead.
Prince Tydeus (a terrifying, wired performance by Marco Young) wants power for himself and Polynices’ witch-like widow (Lucia Young). The blind seer Tiresias, half man-half woman (an astonishingly “gender’fluid” performance by George Readshaw, previously a charismatic Petruchio), watches it all and makes his arcane predictions.
There is not a weak link in this large cast, from the battle-hardened trio of soldiers to Theseus’s smooth metropolitan followers, and Eurydice’s phalanx of intelligent, well-meaning female ministers.
Welcome to Thebes takes stories that we know from the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripidies, and puts them in a 21st century context. Buffini subverts the predestination of Greek tragedy with our expectations of free will and self-determination. It makes us think hard about what we mean by democracy, good governance, idealism, ambition, truth and reconciliation.
It is scarily, powerfully and importantly relevant, and you won’t see a better production than this Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduating show.
Photographs by Craig Fuller