Adapted by: Brendan Murray
Director: Matthew Parker
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The burial and memorialisation of war dead have long been an emotive issue, particularly for troops who die abroad with little left to bury. The grieving process often requires a physical monument, a grave or tomb to visit, as a focus for a relative’s sorrow, and denial of such a death rite seems barbaric. Sophocles’ 2000-year-old drama Antigone, based on ancient Greek legend reflects on the political and emotional place of funereal practices in a society riven by war and betrayal.
Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, whose two brothers, Eteoclesand Polyneices, died in a recent battle that put Creon on the throne. While one brother was buried, Polyneices, who opposed the new King is left to rot outside. His sister decides to defy the King’s authority and buries him in secret, but her act is discovered and while she may have ensured the protection of her brother’s soul in the afterlife, she has endangered her own life in the present.
While modern actresses bemoan the lack of meaty roles, ancient Greek drama is full of them, with several highly acclaimed productions appearing in London in the last couple of years, including Helen McCrory’s Medea and Lia Williams’s Oresteia. The Hope Theatre attempts to capitalise on this interest in strong roles for women, with an all-female production of Antigone, and while its staging and design feel radical, the production often descends into histrionics that undermine its gender-blindness.
Rachel Ryan’s set and costume design are really exciting and the unexplained characters appear to be hiding in some form of urban bunker, surrounded by corrugated metal sheets and sparse pallet boxes. There’s something almost futuristic about it, as though some huge apocalypse has left a few humans alive trying to survive. And to pass the time, they tell each other the story of Antigone, suggesting that Sophocles’ concepts of war, defiance and wise rule are timeless, belonging as much to ancient Greece as they do to some science-fiction future.
Once the play gets going and the cast of five switches confusingly between various roles, the psychology of the characters is a bit all over the place. Antigone begins the play with a major act of rebellion against the King, an act her sister tells her will have consequences, but she chooses to bury her brother anyway. Yet later in this version, Cassandra Hodges’s Antigone is practically hysterical as she receives her punishment as if it is unexpectedly cruel. In Brendan Murray’s script, the audience is repeatedly reminded that she is ‘defiant’ a word used over and over, but she’s not shown to be acting defiantly, calmly and bravely exposing Creon’s tyranny to the crowd, instead she’s essentially falling to pieces, crying and lamenting as though surprised.
While Amanda Bailey’s Creon lacks authority and menace, the design also works against the idea of Creon being the legitimate ruler as the bunker-look implies a rebel camp rather than a royal court. Creon isn’t even terribly villainous, other than being a bit misogynistic complaining that his son is being bested by a woman, it’s not clear enough that his law deserved to be broken, so there are some tensions between design and story that remain unresolved, but with the design being the most successful element.
There are some very nice directorial moments with the chorus singing together, using a metallic beat or crash to suggest the anger of the gods – particularly in a great scene with the soothsayer’s prophesy – which reflects a major theme about the extent of mankind’s dominance. There are some view-blocking issues in this small room with cast members obscuring each other at key moments and some of the more modern dialogue veers on the clunky or even cheesy. There’s a number of interesting ideas but the characters need a clearer sense of purpose while making use of the all-female cast to shed new light on this ancient story. Sophocles’ work and the formal rituals of death will certainly exist for centuries to come, so this future setting has the potential to really emphasise the agelessness of Antigone’s story.
Runs until: 12 March 2016 | Image: Contributed