It’s a classic David and Goliath, if by the end, rooting for Goliath seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Adapted from Sophocles’ play, Inua Ellams’ Antigone is a liberal band-aid that is designed to make us feel better about the state of the world.
More of a sermon than something enjoyable to watch
Directed by Max Webster, a healthy dose of scepticism is needed to watch this play that continually contradicts itself. From Webster’s direction, the themes of family, loss and standing up for your beliefs shine through. Set in present-day London, Antigone (Zainab Hasan) faces the closure of the youth centre that she works at, and the fracturing of her family. Years later, a newly elected Creon (Tony Jayawardena) is faced with a politicised dilemma of his own making over the deaths of his nephews, Polyneices (Nadeem Islam) and Eteocles (Abe Jarman), as his niece Antigone goes as far as possible to do her duty to her family.
The narrative of Sophocles’ play has generally been translated well into a modern context from the importance of funeral rights to the cause of Polyneices’ and Eteocles’ deaths. Others are quite jarring, most notably the incest and the decrees placed on Polynices’ corpse, for whom Ellam tries to create sympathy, but builds the background in such a contradictory fashion that resorts to complete inventions that are easily beaten back by logic, as well as forgetting its own narrative, creating infuriating inconsistencies. as when Antigone mourns the loss of Polyneices and blames the state for radicalising him. The problems are narrative and they create problematic logical links, with Ellam trying to get us to feel emotions without giving us much reason to. Polyneices is killed whilst actively committing an act of terror, so we really have to ask, why do we care? Should I be bothered about a terrorist being stripped of his nationality after he is already dead? Why am I being asked to have sympathy for him?
Those familiar with the circumstances of bin Laden’s burial at sea would understand Creon’s logic of not wanting Polyneices’ grave to become a shrine to his supporters, another reason that drowns out Antigone’s emotional pleas. This is the biggest departure from Sophocles’ own work where there is a grey area to be found in the two brothers’ roles and where it is hard to make a moral distinction between the two, unlike in Ellam’s writing where Antigone’s behaviour is justified. Ellams’ also takes a number of liberties over certain political technicalities that, considering the modern setting, some of us might take as fact, which in this day and age of ‘fake news’ is rather irresponsible.
Ellam clearly has a talent for painting pictures with words, and when coupled with Carrie-Ann Ingrouille’s choreography and Jack Knowles’ stark lighting, leads to some visually stunning and dramatic moments; the only let-down being when the writing itself reverts to stereotype, like the role of the media, or are designed to whip up some liberal moral righteousness and feelings of complacency. At the beginning, it is not entirely clear how Leslie Travers’ hot pink soft play set will be used, until the actors start moving it to create their surroundings from the mish mash of shapes, which are then quickly discarded, despite several moments where they could have been continued to be used. Such an empty stage so early in Act 1 thereby means that it has less of an impact in Act 2 where the action takes place around the focal point that is Antigone.
Hasan puts incredible weight behind every word she says, carefully rationing
the amount of emphasis she places on certain ones. However, there is a lot of anger in her performance that overshadows any other emotion she might be feeling and doesn’t always fit with the text, leading to the occasional repetitive or monotonous moment. Jayawardena’s portrayal of Creon is the best developed in the show, going from a person trying to do good to a completely totalitarian figure. The change is interesting to witness, because Jayawardena does physically appear to harden and his edges become sharper, even if he isn’t necessarily stronger than when we initially meet him. The sudden change that we see in this character at the end is reflected in the sheer physicality of Jaywardena’s performance, an emotional outburst of regret over his actions that we would pay to see from our own
representatives. The problem with this development is narrative; whilst the purpose of Creon in this case is to show us how power corrupts along with the slippery slope to authoritarianism that can occur, the trigger for Creon’s humanity seems forced and muddled, especially in the
The overall problem with Antigone is the narrative and its attempt to comment on reality, fitting as many issues as it can without bringing much depth to their portrayal beyond their mention. This is a difficult play to adapt to a modern setting thematically, and Ellams’ writing warps the intentions of Sophocles to the point where the play becomes more of a sermon than something enjoyable to watch.