Review: Antigone, Southwark Playhouse

“Tyranny has many ways of prospering, since it can do and say what it will”

Productions of Greek tragedies have now been running for literally thousands of years due to the enduring relevance of much of their content, especially in the corrupting influence of holding power. Using Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1991 translation, Primavera’s production of Sophocles’ Antigone for the Southwark Playhouse places the action squarely in a modern-day Middle East, full of political turmoil and regime changes.

Thebes has suffered years of war and oppression but when a final bloody battle leaves the two brothers battling for the throne dead, the new leader, Kreon makes moves to impose his rule. One brother will be buried with full honours, but the rebel one will be left to rot in the sand, the greatest punishment imaginable. His decision shocks many, in particular the dead brothers’ sister Antigone, whose determination to see the correct funeral rites observed leads to tragic conclusions.

The updating is certainly most atmospheric, with smells and sounds transporting us with ease into Simon Kenny’s bleakly designed security compound, and there is success in the way that the contrasting depiction of the Westernised new leadership with their TV cameras and the more traditional ways of the people of Thebes is portrayed through the chorus, especially with Claire-Monique Martin’s beautiful lead singing. This emphasis on the traditional allows for the mentions of the gods to not be too incongruous in the modern setting, but it is striking how many of the questions that Sophocles raises are still so pertinent today, as highlighted by Tom Littler’s direction.

In a time of great political and social upheaval and a world of such strongly held beliefs, questions of right and wrong become no longer so clear-cut. Kreon’s battle to keep hold of the leadership of Thebes is placed in stark contrast with the needs of its inhabitants as he has to rule through fear and intimidation rather than through the love of the people. Jamie Glover’s steely glint conveys this sense of autocracy extremely well, oblivious or at least uncaring for the cowed expressions of those around him. But in Antigone’s struggle to honour her dead brother, there’s also the question of how far it is acceptable to go in the name of religion. Following on from a strong supporting turn in the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s The Deep Blue Sea, Eleanor Wyld’s performance captured the intense fervour of the grief-stricken well, and also the single-mindedness that accompanies it, blind to the consequences of her ostensibly illegal actions.

The production didn’t quite sustain the intensity for the whole running time, feeling a little disjointed with the condensation of the story and the way in which several of the supporting characters have just the one main scene each to make their real impact. Of these, Edward Petherbridge’s prophet Tiresias and Fanos Xenofos’ messenger brought lyrical beauty to their speeches and Kane Sharpe’s idealistic Haemon demonstrated wisdom beyond his years, whilst simultaneously showing the near-impossibility of a proud leader to accept counsel that might lead to change, in any form. This limited engagement with them means it is ultimately fairly hard to be considerably affected by their fate. The 15-strong chorus are a mixed bag too, often effectively lurking in shadows to deliver their lines and in singing David Allen’s new compositions, but also succumbing to some serious overacting in a couple of cases.

So many of the issues and images here have such direct correlations to recent events that it is hard to imagine a more ‘timely revival’ (though I loathe that phrase!): the disposal of the body of a terrorist leader; civil disobedience being dealt with in the harshest of manners; autocratic leaders clinging onto power; even the responsibilities of those watching from afar. But for all the associations and clever allusions with the Arab Spring, this Antigone doesn’t quite resonate on a deep emotional level to become the truly great, affecting drama that such a tragedy ought to be.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 18th June

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