Review: Antigone, Open Air Theatre

Inua Ellams offers a highly contemporary take on Antigone at the Open Air Theatre, one which has moments of real power

“We used to read the Human Rights Act to each other…”

Inua Ellams had huge success in completely reworking Chekhov with his stunning Three Sisters and he has gone for a similarly big swing with this highly contemporary take on Antigone for the Open Air Theatre. And in many ways, it is highly effective in the way it feels so very of the moment (despite the adaptation being started 5 years ago) and the unexpected grace with which it presents Muslim spirituality with no accompanying drama.

The Theban nobles are reworked into a British Pakistani family with designs on the political establishment. But for Creon to become the first Muslim Prime Minister, he needs to win over hearts and minds and that he does by overriding international law after a terrorist attack involving two of his nephews who are both killed. One – a police officer – is hailed as a hero; the other branded a terrorist, the stripping of his human rights bringing Creon into conflict with his social activist niece Antigone.

The points of resonance come thick and fast. Stripping citizenship and disowning British citizens, a Home Secretary willing to enact harm on those from their own communities, the the adoption of populist messaging at the expense of all other, data-driven politics… But the packing in of many an issue means that character development does suffer – lapsed Muslim Antigone’s relationship with her faith, Creon’s reckoning with his actions as an uncle, too much is left vague about the key figures at the heart of the play, despite committed work from Zainab Hasan and Tony Jayawardena. 

What does come through though is the impact of events and the rising Islamophobia on British Muslims. Directors Max Webster and Jo Tyabj interrogate the role of the Chorus interestingly, pulling it out to a vibrant ensemble who crackle with energy in interludes filled with Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s choreography and Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante’s music. Reworked supporting characters add points of interest – Pandora Colin’s empowered Eurydice and Eli London’s non-binary Tiresias both impressing. I might have wanted to feel just a little bit more but I was still impressed by this Antigone’s vision.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Helen Murray
Antigone is booking at the Open Air Theatre until 24th September

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