‘Has lost none of the capacity to thrill & surprise’: WELCOME TO THEBES – Bristol ★★★

In Opinion, Plays, Regional theatre, Reviews by Kris HallettLeave a Comment

Tobacco Factory Theatres – until 30 June 2018

The Ancient Greek myths are relocated to a modern-day civil-war-torn state in Moira Buffini’s highly literate and increasingly impressive Welcome To Thebes.

Played in the National Theatre’s Olivier in 2010, Richard Eyre’s original production suggested Thebes was an African state decimated in its bloodshed. This setting of Thebes is a little vaguer: less specific, more in keeping with the mythical. Thebes is a country where the women have now been forced to take power. Led by Eurydice (a strong, three dimensional moral centre from Emma Pendegrast), widow of Creon and newly elected democratic leader and her cabinet of female ministers, a country whose bodies are still burning is forced to look to its future.

To rebuild her country will require support though, support that has to come from the wealth and power of Athens and its blazingly hip all high-wattage smiles leader Theseus (Alexander Mushore who combines the dashing charm of Obama with the sheer vanity of Trump) and his ingratiating pile of hangers-on. The see-saw of power changes frequently between the two as the future of Thebes hangs in the balance.

In the background, opposition leader Tydeus (Marco Young – nervously spitting out venom), spurred on by his Lady M like mistress Pargeia (Lucia Young) plots to take control. Meanwhile Antigone (Bonnie Badoo) vows to bury her brother, decreed a traitor to the state while trapped in a form of love triangle between her sister Ismene (Anna Munden) and blinded Haemon (James Bradwell).

It’s almost as though Buffini had predicted the Netflix box set form before it truly became popular. LikeDickensian, Gotham or Marvel’s The Defenders, much of the fun comes from encountering characters from across the myths interact in a new landscape. For Greek myth geeks, the play is a delightful collection of Easter eggs.  Theseus calls home, worried about his younger wife Phaedra and ordering his son Hippolytus to look after her. The final phone call home should not be a surprise to anyone with a passing reference point to Euripides or Ovid.

Yet if the convoluted explanation of the plot here has left you needing a chance to check your references, the play suffers from some of the same issues. The first Act lacks rhythm, narratively heavy and hampered by awkward staging from director Lucy Pitman-Walker and a lighting design from Joe Stathers that over lights the space and resolutely refuses to provide focus on the key players. If the original production could rely on all the wizardry of the Olivier to jump-cut locations and provide a sense of the epic, the Tobacco Factory Theatre, presenting the work in the round, feels just too squeezed to comfortably host the 18 actors on its stage. Angles are ever important when staging in the round and its just clumsy that at one point there were 4 actors in a diagonal all blocking the speaker from this audience member‘s sight lines.

Eventually though the plot machinations take hold and the plot becomes truly gripping, as power plays are made and justice for past misdeeds is served. If the first act clunks, the second half rushes to its thrilling conclusion. For this graduating class of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School it is a final chance to work together before the profession beckons. Bradwell delivers another finely tuned performance in a year full of them, as does James Schofield with another slightly unhinged turn, and George Readshaw as the prophetic Tiresius, while the expressive features of Badoo suggests a bright future for her. Look out too for Felix Garcia Guyer whose Miletus displayed a poetic core that contrasts sharply with his rugged shell.

Thebes is an epic undertaking that starts slowly but eventually finds its drive. Thousands of years later the Greeks have lost none of their capacity to thrill and surprise.

Welcome To Thebes plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 30 June 2018.

Kris Hallett on Twitter
Kris Hallett
Kris Hallett is a writer, critic, director and teacher based in Bristol and Bath. From 2010-2014, he was Artistic Director of theatre company Fire Under The Horizon. He has been reviewing theatre in the South West for various publications since 2013. He now publishes on his own Life as Theatre blog. He tweets @krishallett.
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Kris Hallett on Twitter
Kris Hallett
Kris Hallett is a writer, critic, director and teacher based in Bristol and Bath. From 2010-2014, he was Artistic Director of theatre company Fire Under The Horizon. He has been reviewing theatre in the South West for various publications since 2013. He now publishes on his own Life as Theatre blog. He tweets @krishallett.