Ancient Greek tragedy allows the spectator to undergo a catharsis of spirit by witnessing the journeys of those presented on the stage as if they were their own. This emotional journey, through the tragedy of characters and always ending in death, sets free the emotion and allows you to reemerge into the world cleansed. I guess in many ways this is true for most theatre, as it seeks to entertain, uplift and show a side of life that, until that moment, you wouldn’t have expected or experienced. It’s one of the great joys of theatre, and especially one of the beautiful resonances that Greek drama can have. It is therefore a shame that Antigone at the Southwark Playhouse does little to present the catharsis that Sophocles seeks to portray in his lyrical words.
In Primavera’s production, with Tom Littler directing Timberlake Wertenbaker’s adaptation, the tale of lost brothers and the fight for their rightful burial is set in the present day, drawing comparisons with terrorists and the Middle East. It is quite surprising how the text seems lend itself to this modern-day retelling. The Chorus become women dressed in jilbāb’s acting as the mourning citizens or as an ensemble drawing from the rich Arab culture that is portrayed throughout. Whilst these elements proved to be strong, the further comparisions of terrorists and suicide bombers seemed a little outlandish for the translation, and certainly not ones that I could easily draw from the direction (but greatly emphasised in the programme notes)
As a whole, Antigone runs strong, with some convicting performances from Jamie Glover as Kreon and Kane Sharpe as the young Haemon. Whilst the clearly dedicated and passionate ensemble who make up the chorus add a lovely dimension to the narrative form, as a whole they never brought the text to a climax. Eleanor Wyld as Antigone doesn’t capture the true emotion behind her actions, and whilst she delivers a sound performance, the heightened emotion and the distress never truly emerge. It is a shame because Littler does well with directing the piece and attempting to bring out the best of his performances, yet it never quite gets there.
Whilst the performance may not have reached the heights anticipated with Greek tragedy, the production values of the piece are to be revelled in. Simon Kenny’s earthed set acts well as a tomb during Antigone’s imprisonment, which is greatly complimented by Ben Cracknell’s atmospheric lighting. It can be hard to get a sense of the different spaces that Sophocles wanted to depict when so much of the real action happens offstage, but Kenny’s set is wonderfully versatile.
Despite the creative use of the staging and the attempt at placing Sophocles’s tragedy in the modern day, the cast fail to find the rhythm of the dialogue that is required to draw out the drama. There are some great references to the Middle Eastern gender hierarchy with Kreon declaring that “As long as I live no women shall rule me”, but at no point does Litter’s direction show that the actions of Antigone could lead to Kreon’s downfall. As a whole Antigone promises much, but fails to deliver anything more than a flat attempt at one of the world’s greatest texts – leaving me disappointed.
Antigone is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 18th June. For more information and to book tickets, see the website here.