Playwright and poet Inua Ellams (Barber Shop Chronicles, Three Sisters) has not only modernised Sophocles’ great tragedy, the third of his Theban plays, he’s turned the 2,000-year-old story into a state-of-the-nation drama about contemporary Britain.
Tony Jayawardena (Creon) in Antigone. Photo: Helen Murray
Set between 2018 and 2022, Ellams’ Antigone is fuelled by so many of the divisive issues plaguing our headlines today – immigration, discrimination, police corruption and politicians chasing power over principles. His decision to depict Creon (a hotheaded Tony Jayawardena, bulldozing his way into power) as a pull-the-ladder-up-behind-you ruler from an ethnic minority background seems remarkably prescient when only days before the show’s official opening, new Prime Minister Liz Truss offered the top spots in her cabinet to colleagues of diverse backgrounds but pedalling agendas likely to harm others of their own race or gender.
Ellams’ chorus comprises a cross-section of the British public. Speaking as a collective and often in rhyming couplets, it’s they who voice the writer’s wisest and most moving sentiments on the issues raised here. In director Max Webster’s (Life of Pi, Henry V) and co-director Jo Tyabji's production, they dance too, with Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s choreography flitting between street style and more interpretive movements. Khadija Raza's costumes paint a worthy snapshot of Britain today, with the cast in an array of contemporary clothing, from business suits to tracksuits and kaftans.
Nadeem Islam (Polyneices), Zainab Hasan (Antigone) and Eli London (Tiresius) in Antigone. Photo: Helen Murray
The drama plays out on designer Leslie Travers’ elemental stage, where broad concrete slabs give way to reveal a roaring fire in one heightened scene, and a slip of water is funnelled along the back, evoking religious rituals as characters interact with it. (The air and earth, of course, come courtesy of the production’s open-air setting in leafy Regent’s Park.) The staging is simple, for the most part, never distracting us from the agendas of the characters – and each of Ellams’ players have their own motives.
It’s pleasing to see an Ismene (an appropriately brisk and compelling Shazia Nicholls) with some fire in her belly. She’s still a rule-follower, scared of the consequences of breaking the law. But when Antigone (a loveable Zainab Hasan, who wears her people’s struggle on her face) is locked up for going against Creon’s wishes and preparing her brother’s body for burial, Ellams’ has the compliant sister join forces with the traditionally submissive Eurydice (Pandora Colin) and together, they protest publically the treatment of the heroine.
Pandora Colin (Eurydice), Shazia Nicholls (Ismene) and Tony Jayawardena (Creon) in Antigone. Photo: Helen Murray
Having shifted the narrative into the tech age – with references to emails and characters scrolling on their phones – the decision to make Sophocles’ blind prophet Tiresius (Eli London, a late arrival breathing fresh energy into the show) a coding maestro is inspired.
Ellams’ Antigone is never didactic. The playwright employs his trademark sociological prowess to hold a mirror up at our fractured nation, and open up a political dialogue around many of today’s hot topics, in some cases voicing both sides of the argument – most poignantly around Islamophobia.
It briefly falters in the final throes, ending too suddenly without allowing the tragedy’s final blows to be felt. Still, Ellams’ Antigone tells the tragedy of contemporary Britain.
|What||Antigone, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre review|
|Where||Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, Inner Cir, Westminster, London, NW1 4NU | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Baker Street (underground)|
03 Sep 22 – 24 Sep 22, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£20 - £55|
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|