Welcome to Thebes, National Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Moira Buffini is only the second woman to have a new work staged in the Olivier and no one could accuse her of failing to rise to the challenge. Her predecessor, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, dramatised the suffragette struggle for the vote in Her Naked Skin. Buffini, giving a modern twist to Greek myth and Attic tragedy, explores the plight of a female protagonist who becomes the first democratic president of a third-world country that is emerging from a brutal civil war. Ancient Thebes is re-imagined as a present-day African state, strongly reminiscent of Liberia. The play speculates on what would happen if Creon's wife, Eurydice, assumed power in an update of Sophocles' Antigone.

The result is an admirably ambitious, fascinating (if uneven) piece, premiered in a vivid, expertly marshalled production by Richard Eyre which is alive to the urgency of the play's politics and to its engaging streak of iconoclastic humour.

Eurydice (played beautifully by Nikki Amuka-Bird) is forced to appeal for aid to the superpower, Athens, and its leader, Theseus (a swaggeringly presidential David Harewood), whose crusade for democracy is impelled by the profit-motive. The summit between them is jeopardised by discontents from the former regime, represented by Chuk Iwuji's tackily charismatic Tydeus, a dangerous fraud who hijacks Eurydice's inauguration as he feigns demonic possession by the voices of the unappeased dead.

Eurydice's refusal to bury the defeated warlord, Polynices, illustrates her dilemma: for all her talk of truth and reconciliation, a primal impulse of revenge towards her son's murderer drives her into a disastrous political error which results in the killing of another boy, Scud, a child soldier reduced to a crazed beggar in this post-war world.

Performed on Tim Hatley's spectacular set, of wrecked palace and glowering sky, Welcome to Thebes plays some irreverent tricks. Mischievously, the tragedy of Phaedra and Hippolytus is filtered through mobile phone calls that keep Theseus briefed about problems back home. In a running sight-gag, the blinded Haemon unerringly chats up the wrong girl. The mock-heroic mood is enhanced by the down-to-earth and pragmatic female cabinet, as when the Minister of Justice cuts Theseus down to size by telling him Thebes hopes to learn from Athens' mistakes.

The correspondences between modernity and myth are, rightly, jarring: the tragic determinism of Greek drama might seem to contradict Eurydice's belief that the people can will political change, if it were not for the fact that, in this version, not all of the prophecies of the blind seer, Tiresias, come true.

"What kind of guide book did you read?"Eurydice asks Theseus, an uncomprehending tripper in a land which he can see only as a "vast economic development zone". No charge of opportunistic tourism can be levelled against this play. Evoking a world where the horrors of the past refuse to be tidied away and where economic dependency can lead to sexual blackmail, it takes you deep inside the frazzled nervous system of a nascent third-world democracy.

In rep to 19 August (020 7452 3000)