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27 July 2010

Welcome to Thebes

The National Theatre exists for plays like this. A new play with a large cast, with no starring parts a celeb could slip into, doesn't have a chance of being produced anywhere else. And that's before you even think about the subject matter: a "developing" country has been devastated by civil wars, and the dominant world power has come to offer support in rebuilding, but on its own terms. It's virtually impossible to see the dominant world power as anything other than America, and the developing country actually isn't Iraq - comparisons with Sierra Leone or Liberia are more accurate. But in the play the countries are called Thebes and Athens, and the names and myths are those of Greek mythology - to take just two examples, the new leader of Thebes is called Eurydice, and one of the loose-cannon soldiers is called Megaera. This brings with it various staples of Greek drama: hubris, hamartia, peripetia, etc. It's not coach-party stuff, and there were plenty of empty seats.

But this makes it unbelievably rich in levels of meaning, especially when you add the personal conflicts between various characters, and a thread of reflection on sexual roles. And there are racial issues at play too. The Thebans are mostly black, the Athenians mostly white (although their president "first citizen", Theseus, is black).

It's probably too much for one play to handle, but it's bloody close to succeeding. It has good jokes, which might surprise you. The one that got the biggest laugh was the most obvious, though: Oedipus (father and brother of two of characters) is described as a real motherfucker.

Actually, there was so much in it, I don't think I'm equipped to talk about it much more. I think I'll see it again.

Until then, let's just note that the cast was the blackest I've seen in an NT production. It wasn't colour-blind casting by any means, but subtle in the way it played on expectations. Presumably as a result the audience was noticeably blacker than usual, and I felt there was some sense among the black audience of delight at seeing so many black faces on the stage. Biggest applause went to Madeline Appiah, as Megaera, for a brilliantly fierce performance, but performances all round were excellent.

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