Antigone review: Sophocles is dragged into modern London
While Sophocles may have written his great Athenian tragedy Antigone way back in 441BC, its core themes are enduring, something playwright Inua Ellams makes abundantly clear in this sharp and moving adaptation.
Transposed to modern-day London, Ellams’ eponymous heroine is a young British-Pakistani Muslim. We meet her, along with her three siblings, at their local youth centre, which is soon to close down; the scene is set for a community, and by extension a country, in crisis.
Their uncle Creon is running for prime minister and when Antigone’s brother Polyneices later dies – denounced as a terrorist – Creon denies him a proper burial to safeguard his political career. Antigone condemns her uncle’s decision: according to Islamic practices, a body must be buried swiftly after death, and she is determined her brother should have this last rite.
This is a story of a family divided, but also of a state and its politics similarly torn. Creon becomes the country’s first South-Asian prime minister but his concerns about the electorate’s reaction to his heritage lead him to prioritise political ambition over family. He clings to power, egged on by his scheming advisor.
The play tackles serious questions with great sensitivity, from the experiences of Muslims in modern Britain, to the politics surrounding extremist religious activity, to the sentiments of belonging, identity and citizenship.
Not simply a playwright, Ellams is also a poet, and his script is dazzlingly eloquent, incorporating spoken word poetry delivered by a youthful, modern-day chorus and a contemporary soundtrack.
As the sun sets on the Open Air Theatre, the production’s lighting works to dramatic effect, in perfect harmony with the story’s stark realities. On an otherwise pared-back stage, the creators toy with the natural elements in true Ancient Greek style: water runs across the set for the performance of poignant ritual bathing; a powerful, raging fire burns on stage, and in Antigone’s heart, for her brother. The action is rich, alive and captivating.
This Antigone is an exemplary marriage of writer, company and creative team. It is an ancient story born anew and told in today’s words, at once entertaining, elucidating and accessible.