REVIEW: Welcome to Thebes (The Actors’ Program)

Review by Maulik Thakkar

Ambitious Push to Marry Myth to Modernity

It is no easy task to choose a capstone play for the conclusion of an intensive actor’s training program. In pursuit of an elusive equilibrium between adapting a compelling dramatic script and putting on display the diverse talents of a gifted group of emerging actors, for the 2019 cohort The Actors’ Program have chosen Moira Buffini’s Welcome to Thebes. Directed by the celebrated Sara Brodie, the show is an ambitious effort to meld that which is modern with that which is mythic. The result is a varied soundscape of shocked gasps, knowing chuckles, and the slow realisation of moments of narrative magic lost in the clamour of the fight over spoils.

Set amid the smouldering remains of a war-ravaged landscape, Welcome to Thebes welcomes the audience through torn white plastic sheets. Seating us in the round, the set (designed by John Parker) is minimalistic, with a couple of raisers littered with assorted electronic waste visible onstage. The narrative explores how disparate characters from different walks of life converge as the traumatic realities of reconciliation and rebuilding start to dawn on PTSD-carrying existences. The exact geographic context is unclear to me, but there is a universality to the way that nascent politics tries to navigate the devastation of the scattered post-conflict world. 

Thebes is presented here as a symbol of the characters’ mental headspace: a volatile blend of the instinct to survive, giving way to desperation and the ambition to rise above the primality of warmongering lust struggling to be felt. The production foregrounds visual indicators of imminent loss of life through the use of machine guns and handguns – an effective reminder of the urgency of the players’ world and their warped hunger to attain something better than the urge to brutalise the life of their fellow humans. This is the strongest highlight of the show – in juxtaposing provocation in scene after scene of characters begging each other for less traumatising human interaction with the drive to seek justice and truth, the audience is constantly probed for our judgement, if we dare. The consequences of obsessing over this judgement are brutally revealed in the spirit of classical Greek theatre during the second half of the show, as we are confronted and exhorted to reflect on the role we play in the politics of our own surroundings.

Vaiari Vaeau-Ivirangi’s consistently shines in her mesmerising portrayal of Tiresias the oracle. Jared Peeters’ villainous Tydeus is the standout performance in Welcome to Thebes, even as he seethes with self-righteous indignation with a near-comical partner in crime (played by Manuka Luiten-Apirana) meeting each embittered stroke with resentfully passionate lust. Other memorable performances include members of the new cabinet, played by Alex Tunui, Ihaka Kelly and Greta van den Brink as they drive the narrative toward an anticlimactic conclusion. There is a soulful quality to Isabelle Cushman’s performance as Antigone, a secondary character representing a barometer for the audience’s emotional state throughout the show.

Sophie Sharp’s Aglaea makes for a sublime melding of competence and intellect, charming in her professed lack of charm. Aidan O’Malley’s Theseus is a glaring reminder of the significance of the #metoo movement for contemporary audiences. I found it difficult to sense a connection to the empathy of Connor Johnston’s portrayal of Haemon, which I also felt about Vaeau-Ivirangi’s interpretation of Scud until the highest moment of tension in the performance. Thomas Henderson lights up the stage in the distinct shades of contrast emanating from the differences between the two roles he plays. Georgie Salmon’s Eurydice’s growth as a character is a joy to behold between the two halves of the play.

I am often hypnotised by the ease with which Steven Glyde slips into the skin of each character he essays, particularly given that the program lists him as a last-minute understudy stepping in for Jacob Masters’ roles. In Welcome to Thebes, his central character grapples with the overlap between duty and responsibility, and is overwhelmed by both. Hannah Moria-Toloa’s voice is the stuff of every dystopian nightmare – she excels as a companion for the oracle and is an omnipresent reminder of the betrayal of the next generation. Liv Whyte’s interpretation of Talthybia is a rewarding character arc as she becomes a living embodiment of each employee’s despair about the scope of their future prospects. We find ourselves drawn towards these characters out of a sense of curiosity, as they challenge our preconceived ideas around the stock characters we expect them to play in the narrative.

Pacing feels uneven and inconsistent in the first half, which is more satisfactorily resolved as it noticeably picks up in the latter half of the show. It surprises me that some subplots are treated with more depth than others, but this is likely a flaw in the writing rather than a commentary on the players’ exploration of their roles. What really stays with me is how much half the cast seemed to hold both arms by their sides for a prolonged duration while onstage. It results in the breaking of the spell woven by the plot, since I would have expected flailing hand and arm gestures to indicate the severity of PTSD in several characters. It also punctures how much the characters’ dialogue with each other ought to resonate with and haunt the memories of the audience post-show. 

The actors are also hamstrung by the limitations of physical space needed to deliver Buffini’s unwieldy script. Basement Theatre’s area-limited studio space proves an Achilles’ heel for the production, as actors bump into props or corpses during entrances and exits, interrupting the audience’s trance as we contemplate the layers of meaning presented to us. This is slightly offset by the striking visual contrast between the mud-streaked bodies of ‘ordinary’ characters with limited power, and the recently-bathed sanitised complexions of those with considerable power, drawing us back into the rhythm of Thebes. Buffini’s script employs a deadpan, straight-played sense of humour in the course of witty one liners, which made less of an impact in specific scenes rather than as a consistent undercurrent running through the performance.

Rachel Marlow’s lighting design and Jason Smith’s sound sphere take my breath away with their masterful accompaniment to an epic-scale production. I also appreciate the extraordinary efforts of props master Kathryn Aucamp in a show of Herculean scale, the talents of vocal coach Cherie Moore,  enthralling costume design by Elizabeth Whiting, and the consummate skills of the production crew and stage management team – it would be impossible to imagine the show without their tireless efforts in running a slick operation. 

There is no single saving moment in the show, but there are plenty of compelling moments in Welcome to Thebes. In particular, characters arriving at the realisation that the complacency of their power and status is only ever a temporary illusion felt most fulfilling to me. Welcome to Thebes ends in as uncertain a place as our journey began. Here, there is no neat tie-up at the conclusion of the narrative – instead we are left to ponder how this political world will take shape over the weeks and months to come. Brodie’s production is a pointed reminder of how urgent it is to face up to the darkness within the human condition, and its many manifestations in times of peace following traumatic periods of war. We would be remiss to ignore such a powerful wake-up call.

Welcome to Thebes plays Basement Theatre until 16 November. 

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