“What man would dare disobey?”
It’s either brave or foolhardy for a theatre on Upper Street to take on Sophocles after the extraordinary success of the #AlmeidaGreeks season but the Hope Theatre, perched above the Hope and Anchor pub, has always forged its own path, ever since opening as the first Off-West-End venue to ensure a legal wage for everyone working at the theatre. And in Brendan Murray’s new adaptation of Antigone, there’s an original take indeed on the Ancient Greeks, helmed by the Hope’s Artistic Director Matthew Parker.
The story begins as just that, a story. Behind walls of corrugated iron, 5 women shelter from some unspecified war or apocalyse raging outside and to pass the time, they decide to enact a tale from the storybook that one of them possesses. And so unfolds Antigone’s struggle against a patriarchal society, Creon’s dilemmas about doing the right thing even in the face of divine intervention, Ismene’s difficulties in connecting with so fiercely committed a sister… Aided by sonically daring musical interventions for a sung Chorus by Maria Haïk Escudero, it’s a powerful setting.
For all the fascinating potential of the framing device, Murray’s adaptation is mostly quite respectful. Streamlined down to an hour, Sophocles’ structure survives intact and so, genderblind casting aside (when called to play men, the women play them as men), the substance of the play remains rather traditional. Not that there isn’t something subversive about these women reading lines about the very nature of mankind, but that they resonate with considerably more power when viewed through the prism of the framing characters and their untold stories.
The devastation that playing Creon’s intransigence seems to wreak on Amanda Bailey’s character, the almost rabble-rousing exuberance from Holly Campbell’s recitation of the final line of “it’s the wisdom that comes with experience, why men grow old…”, these are the tales I wanted retold with all their hints of the mysterious world outside. Only Hester Kent really infused her ‘in-show’ performances as a mouthy messenger and a captivating Teiresias with a similar energy, meaning the balance of this production never quite settled for me, even though it thoroughly intrigued me from start to finish.