Thebes has emerged from a
bloody civil war with Eurydice as the elected leader of an all-female
cabinet. They have invited a team of Athenian peace-keepers, including
President Theseus (or, as he insists, ‘first citizen’) to visit them,
hoping that they will be able to negotiate a package of aid. There are
stirrings among the citizenry, fanned by the defeated opposition leader
Prince Tydeus. In her victory speech, Eurydice controversially declares
that the body of the defeated enemy General Polynices will be left to
rot in the sun, which antagonises the dead man’s brother, Antigone and
offends the civilised sensibilities of Theseus. In the nervous
atmosphere, relations sour when a child soldier is ahot in a stand-off
with the President’s security detail. Civil war threatens to erupt again
though the President is distracted by news from home: his wife,
Phaedra, has hanged herself; his son, Hippolytus, is nowhere to be
found. As the play ends, some of the refugees from war look forward to
making a new home - and new wars - in Athens.
This is a pretty exciting play. Moira
Buffini has been writing a wide - wild - range of things, from magical
fables to bourgeois comedies. The work is always interesting though I
was slightly disappointed by the drift away from historical imagination
suggested by Dinner. Not that I didn’t like
the play; it’s really one of the funniest new plays of the last ten
years - but rather than it suggested she was confining her ambitions to
more mainstream expectations. This play, though, is in some ways a
return to the bold, large-scale theatrical ambition of a play like Silence.
In keeping with its classical references
the play probably covers around 24 hours (though it strikes me as more
like 4-5 days of events) and takes place in a variety of locations
around an old ruined Palace which is serving as the Athenians’ temporary
headquarters. The main pivots of the play are the announcement that
Polynices will remain unburied, the killing of the child soldier, the
President’s news from home.
I think there’s a hidden story here,
which is the question of Howard Barker. Put more plainly, how should we,
as writers, respond to Barker’s work? He’s one of the most beloved of
playwrights (by other playwrights) but where’s his influence? Where’s
There are plays that show his influence, of course. Greig’s Dunsinane recently looked to me like it was, increasingly as the evening went on, in debt to Barker. Zinnie Harris’s Midwinter, Fall and Solstice the same. I once wrote a play, Heresiarch, that, if I look at it now, is embarrassingly imitative. Moira Buffini’s Silence, while independently successful as a play, shows clear signs of his influence.
It makes me think of Harold Bloom’s ‘anxiety of influence’. Barker is such a strong
writer that, if you come into his gravitational pull, its very hard not
to collapse into imitation. I see this a fair bit with younger writers.
In fact, when I briefly read plays for North-West Playwrights, there
was a guy who sent in English history plays that were simple pastiches
of the Master’s style. Buffini seems more or less to have resisted this
collapse. Sarah Kane in Phaedra’s Love
shows signs of tracing a path opened up by Barker but not following in
his precise footsteps. Other writers have had to repudiate that
influence, a psycholiterary trope that Bloom calls clinamen.
I think of a couple of writers who are very dismissive of Barker even
though I know he’s doing things they wish they were doing. To pursue
their own style they have to kill Daddy.
Here, Buffini isn’t exactly writing a
Barker play, certainly not in his verbal style. There are some of his
touches; the lingering and heightened descriptions of violence, the
absurdist - almost Pythonesque - device of Tiresias being both a man and
a woman; the undercutting gags; the joy in rhetoric; the admixture of
the contemporary and the mythical. The play is set in Barkertime and
Barkerspace (is it now? is it then? is it historically located? is it
eternal?). Note that Billington criticises the play for this, suggesting
that by drawing on myth, it suggests that the atavistic return to
savagery is something that can never change. I see his point, though he
makes it sound rather foolish by criticising her for ‘an unresolved
contradiction between free will and fate’ - as if this would have been a
simple matter to resolve, like remembering to put full stops at the end
(Speaking of which, there’s a lovely, querulous, defiant Author’s Note in the text
I’ve been asked to write an author’s note
To explain why I don’t put all the full stops in.
The text is not poetry
It is drama
It needs to be useful to actors
And I think this is.
I shall add this to my list of Eccentric Author’s Notes Which Probably Are About As Unhelpful As They Are Helpful. [See also Attempts on Her Life, Far Away, etc.].)
But Buffini’s trying to keep open the possibility of this kind of large-scale imaginative play as political.
She’s said in some newspaper interview or other that she was inspired
to write it by hearing that old claim, stated yet again, that women
aren’t good at writing Big Political Plays. This is Big and yes it’s
Political but what she’s clearly not good at is writing Big Simplistic
Political Plays, hence some carping.
Richard Eyre’s given it a Big production, but in some ways hasn’t done it any favours by making it just a bit stodgy and rhetorical in places. I don’t imagine I’ll get to see this play again - I counted 25 actors at the curtain call - but I hope it’ll have a European life. It could use a more inventive staging that brings out, rather than suppresses, the ambiguities and allusiveness.