'Antigone' review — Inua Ellams adapts Sophocles' Greek tragedy with high emotions

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Can a centuries-old tragedy resonate anew? The answer is yes and then some in Inua Ellams’s wholesale rewrite of Antigone, the Sophocles title here freshly invigorated by the same Anglo-Nigerian writer who refashioned Three Sisters for keeps at the National Theatre pre-pandemic. In the interim, Ellams’s solo play An Evening with an Immigrant at the Bridge constituted one of the a bracing pandemic-era offering that took us out of our homes, and – in its sweeping empathy - of ourselves.

Ellams remarks in the programme that he has been working on this adaptation for five years, but the result seems startlingly up to date and can only be regarded as a singular act of prescience: this writer has seen into the future – which happens just now to resemble our present – and the vision beheld is very bleak.

Contemporary approaches to this durable, ever-elastic text aren’t new: Polly Findlay’s blistering account of the same play a decade or so ago for the National Theatre had a modernist slant that struck to the core. If Max Webster and Jo Tyabji’s always-sympathetic staging doesn’t cut quite so fully to the quick, that’s due to a message-laden second half that too often substitutes pedantry for dramatic power; nor is all the acting, it must be said, as fully incisive as one might wish.

But with the recent changes in political authority in Britain, one looks on agog and impressed at the deftness with which Ellams imagines a multicultural realpolitik with Tony Jayawardena’s Creon as the first Muslim prime minister.

Creon’s nemesis is, of course, the determined Antigone (Zainab Hasan), who inhabits a stage filled at first with giant letters spelling out her name before those get kicked into disarray amid the mounting distress. A play about commemorating the dead has found itself coincidentally opening within a day of a country (indeed a world) doing just that, which leant a further topicality to this unveiling of the first-ever Greek tragedy on the Open Air stage.

While Creon takes a notably hard line via his call for a British Bill of Rights, we hear the contrasting fates of his two nephews. Eteocles (Abe Jarman), a policeman, has been shot and killed and will receive full funerary tributes, while his brother Polyneices (known as Nicey and played by Nadeem Islam), who died alongside him, will not. Antigone, newly envisaged as a youth worker, argues that such actions run counter to the rules of Islam; the Qu’ran demands burial at once.

Alas, Nikomedes (Munir Khairdin), a local Imam, feels differently: Polyneices was a terrorist in his view and so deserves no obsequies whatsoever. Complicating matters is Creon’s stepson Haemon (Oliver Johnstone), to whom Antigone is engaged: Polyneices made an unfortunately fatal choice, Haemon argues, and has died as a result. Nothing justifies desecration, counters Antigone, and if Haemon disagrees, well, the marriage is off.

Antigone is on the side of compassion and mercy and finds a protector in elder sibling Ismene (Shazia Nicholls), a political aide. Eurydice (Pandora Colin), Creon’s wife, gets a hearing, too, doing battle with the implacable men in her midst. Most ruthless amongst that assemblage is Aleksy (Sandy Grierson), who is there to push Creon ever to the right and whose real-life equivalents either side of the Atlantic are all too obvious.

The play balances order against chaos and the individual against the state, and Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s choreography brings a propulsive “street” feel to what in other hands, and contexts, could seem static. It’s a shame, then, when the rhetoric devolves into bald-faced placard-waving, no matter how laudable the sentiments expressed.

It’s difficult to imagine many amongst the Open Air audience not nodding in firm agreement with the woeful litany of injustice that gets enumerated amidst the fervent wish, expressed by Ismene, for “a better Britain of individual liberty, tolerance, respect”.

But even the most emotive amongst a wonderfully diverse cast face the challenge of hanging on to character once the various position papers take over. Ellams’s poetry, there to be heard alongside the polemics, is as ever very beautiful. Let that aspect of the show guide you, and this aggrieved cry from the heart will hit home.

Antigone is at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre to 24 September. Book Antigone tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Zainab Hasan (Antigone), Oliver Johnstone (Haemon) (Photo by Helen Murray)

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