‘Antigone’ review – Inua Ellams’ converts classic into captivating commentary on citizenship


Inua Ellams’ (The Barber Shop Chronicles) take on Sophocles’ Greek tragedy is sharp and confrontational, its contemporary setting so strikingly on-the-nose – even if a writer’s note in the programme states it was far more coincidental, having first began five years ago.

There’s references to the British Bill of Rights (shelved only a few days ago by the Truss government) and a caretaker Prime Minister, plus the ‘woke’ pejorative. The stripping of Polynices’ citizenship following a depraved act of terrorism is akin to the ongoing debate around Shamima Begum. It forces us – and, naturally, politicians – to answer uncomfortable questions, as the best theatre often does.

Because UK politicians have a toxic obsession with the present, and a troubling fear of the past which sees them wanting it held in stasis. Prime Minister Creon’s (Tony Jayawardena) refusal to bury the body of Polynices (Nadeem Islam), a brother of Antigone (Zainab Hasan), is the same integral plot point, but in this modern backdrop from Ellams it brings a chilling new meaning to the word ‘conservative’. Rather than tackle questions around national identity, policing and more, boxing up the physical embodiments of this issue to gather dust – against the Muslim faith Polynices followed – is far more appealing to Antigone’s uncle. It’s done to significant effect in the second act, where our protagonist sits in a small square centre stage as other characters talk about her, rather than to her.

It’s directed and co-directed with fascinating fluidity by Max Webster and Jo Tyabji respectively. Bright pink letters bearing the name Antigone are soon swept off stage. Choreography by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille bends and twists in the most extraordinary way, while Ellams’ script is – perhaps unsurprising given his background as a poet – lyrical and rhythmic. A scene whereby a flurry of political parties compete for votes in a general election is particularly thrilling, scathing in their summaries and exciting when set against Michael Asante’s thumping score.

The whole thing carries a certain gravitas, one felt formidably in Hasan’s performance as she wrestled with faith, family and fairness. Equally, Jayawardena is convincing as the premier engulfed in familial sacrifices for the sake of public opinion. The only shame is that his aide, Aleksy (Sandy Grierson), in reflecting polling to Creon, falls so easily into the sinister data miner trope we have seen presented to us post-Cambridge Analytica. It’s easy to see why public reaction is framed as such in this modern retelling, but against the otherwise searing commentary, arguing that politicians’ interpretation of election data is always selective and misguided doesn’t feel as fresh a point to make.

Granted, the rest of the issues highlighted in this Antigone are hardly new, either (how many times do decision-makers need to be told about violence against women and Islamophobia), but they’re presented with renewed energy here. It may not have been deliberate, but the fact the themes of citizenship and human rights still ring painfully true several years later is damning, and speaks volumes. It by no means quietly tackles the debates we’re still afraid of having today, rather presenting them loud and clear. It’s enlightening.

Antigone is now playing at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 24 September.

British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted, captioned and audio described performances will take place on 13, 16 and 24 September respectively.

Production Images: Helen Murray.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Antigone’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and while I know Nadeem Islam in a personal capacity, all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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