Welcome to Thebes: Africa as Western myth

Moira Buffini’s myth-inspired play about Western intervention would have been better based on the story of Narcissus.

Patrick Marmion

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The West just can’t leave Africa alone. Whether it’s rescuing it with aid, disciplining it with peacekeeping missions and war crime tribunals, or exploiting it for minerals and cheap labour, the whole continent serves as a kind of infinite fetish. Many a mollycoddled Westerner tends to believe Africa has some magical or spiritual essence.

And so it goes with Moira Buffini’s enjoyable new play Welcome to Thebes, now playing at the National Theatre in London. It is a play based on Greek myth and the ancient city of Thebes, which is ultimately blind to its own precepts. Buffini’s Thebes is a classic, generalised ‘failed state’. Its closest modern equivalent is Liberia. It is a place riven by war, where the average life expectancy is 38, where there is no reliable infrastructure and where the national bank is being investigated for loan fraud. And at large in this still smouldering battlefield is a diabolical rebel leader accused of war crimes.

This is a nightmarish landscape which is represented on production designer Tim Hatley’s set by the ruins of a presidential palace, pockmarked by bullet holes. It is a bleak panorama which, as the show’s poster also suggests, now appears entirely recognisable by a Western audience when fronted by a child soldier brandishing an AK47. And that is exactly how the show starts – with armed kids shouting abuse into the air-conditioned auditorium.

On the other hand, Buffini’s Thebes is also pure fantasy. For instance, the ‘rebel leader’ – as Africans are commonly known – is a great athlete who holds the world record for javelin throwing. And the city of Thebes is described as being laid out like a celestial map, adding another layer of African mysticism to the play. In addition, instead of King Creon being in charge, it is his wife Eurydice (Nikki Amuka-Bird) who leads this burgeoning democracy, where a truth and reconciliation committee is at work and where women are appointed at every level of government. Although this kind of scenario was partially realised in Liberia with the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, it remains a misty-eyed dream of liberal humanist progress.

Naturally, as it involves many of the most famous protagonists from Greek tragedy, the vision presented here is full of comic irony. Buffini’s play is certainly not naive. She absolutely recognises the extent to which her Thebes is forced into Western democratic contortions by its need for cash from the visiting Athenian ‘First Citizen’ Theseus. Played by David Harewood, he is an unmistakable Barack Obama figure, breezing in on his helicopter with a posse of wired-up suits to facilitate a diplomatic mission. What they offer is that most dreaded and one-sided of panaceas: to turn Thebes into an economic development zone.

Inevitably, Theseus and co are shocked by what they find. In this country, soldiers eat the brains of their victims and create roadblocks from their entrails. They also have to deal with Tiresias (Bruce Myers), the crazed sybil who claims to have had a sex change effected by snakes. And when it comes to family values, these people are way off message: the daughter of the former King Oedipus, Antigone (Vinette Robinson), is revealed to be the sister of her father. The Athenians experience what is known in politically correct euphemism as ‘a cultural problem’.

And yet, amusing as these anomalies and anachronisms may seem, they reduce the incoming Athenian imperialists to passive observers. This is very much not the way that things work in reality. When Western powers get involved with what they deem to be ‘failed states’ – from Afghanistan to Iraq, from Sierra Leone to Somalia – they certainly make their presence felt. They install puppet regimes, such as Hamid Karzai’s in Kabul, and they apply military force across the country. Without this, incoming cash simply wouldn’t be safe. It’s an insurance policy.

So the big trick that Buffini’s play misses is that Theseus and his gang fail to impose themselves on Thebes. Buffini doesn’t dramatise the way liberal democracies themselves conjure up primitive, warlike peoples as fantasised ‘others’ whom they then try to save from themselves. As well as supplying the thrust of what was once known as ‘ethical foreign policy’, this is an act of disavowal. By setting up Africans as savages struggling to assert their humanity we can disavow the savagery behind our own inhumanity. In psychoanalysis this process is called ‘transference’.

Perhaps because this is Buffini’s blind spot, her version of Theseus, played like a bull in a suit by Harewood, fails to mirror the polished gleam of today’s squeaky-clean career politician. This Theseus shows scorn and disdain and is even a bit seedy, but what he and his antiseptic crew lack is the Teflon quality of today’s powerbrokers – the quality that lets them act with impunity and go unpunished. This is the quality that allowed Bush and Blair to create global scandal by invading Iraq, and then to get re-elected. It’s therefore not enough to present Theseus as a vain patrician who finds himself a bit disgusted.

This is also a problem for Nikki Amuka-Bird’s president Eurydice, whose conversion to the faith of liberal democracy is already complete. It leaves the incoming moneymen with little or no work to do on her. Perhaps one of the play’s key figures, therefore, is Talthybia (Jacqueline Defferary), one of Theseus’s confused but well-meaning aides. She is a petty bureaucrat who is dismissed by the old-school supremacist Tiresias as having no future because she is a hollow functionary. And yet her own confused anger and dismay at the killing of a child soldier who holds her hostage distils the play’s sense of hopelessness and inevitability.

The fault of Buffini’s play, however, is not its pessimism. Rather, it doesn’t go far enough. By employing the language of Greek myth and drafting in so many characters who would normally warrant their own full-length play in the hands of Sophocles or Euripides, Buffini overcrowds her canvas. More than this, by using the language of Greek myth and its central feud between Gods and people, fate and free will, she sets up modern Africa as stuck in political and social deadlock.

Buffini is under no obligation to be optimistic, but it is equally reasonable to ask how fate and free will function today as ideological imperatives in the service of imperial power and subordination. They are also known as ‘civil rights’ and ‘the rule of law’. Invading armies and businesses always bring with them ideological regulations as well as bullets and bank notes. They redefine what they find and recreate it in their own image.

That is why, rather than the mythical history of Thebes, a better choice for Buffini in her analysis of Western imperialism might have been the tragic figure of Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection while out hunting.

Patrick Marmion is a freelance journalist, playwright, founder of Soapbox debating forum and a part-time tutor at the University of Kent.

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