New Diorama Theatre, London – until 1 February 2020
Presented by company Holy What, playwright Lulu Raczka’s reimagining of Sophocles Greek tragedy Antigone, uses an all-female cast. Raczka’s tragedy focuses our attention on the relationship between Antigone and her younger sister Ismene, who are now teenagers in a parallel 21st Century Britain.
The sisters refer to their evil half-brother Polynices who has been dishonoured as he refused to share the crown with his brother Eteocles. However the references to the brothers and other characters are oblique, almost asides, which mean you have to know the plot of Sophocles tragedy to fully understand what is going on.
So, here are the main issues, which are treated in Raczka’s version as background events and therefore the audience does not know any of this unless they have read a synopsis of the play. Oedipus unwittingly had sex with his mother who gave birth to Antigone and Ismene. Oedipus had decreed that when he died his sons Polynices and Eteocles would power share; be the King in alternate years.
Unfortunately Eteocles, the eldest brother refused to relinquish the throne when it was Polynices’ turn, so Polynices waged a war against Eteocles. They killed each other making Creon King, who ordered that Eteocles should be buried in honour and Polynices unburied. Antigone defies King Creon by burying the evil brother Polynices and receives the ultimate punishment from King Creon because of it.
Raczka’s Antigone has stripped back the cast to a two-hander between Annabel Baldwin as Antigone and Rachel Hosker as Ismene, which presents a great challenge. Antigone and Hosker are entitled, very privileged and rich young royals living in a gilded cage. We begin with the sisters rousing themselves from the gravel pit in which they are partially buried. We hear a blast of Destiny’s Child’s ‘Survivor’ as Antigone and Ismene furiously gyrate and dance. They are mischievous, rude and at times bawdy. They play a drinking game; unless the person responds yes to every question, they must drink or perform a dare. They riff about sex, refer to the war, and their parentage. They drink to preload for a night out, even though they are underage.
As typical teenagers, they are childlike whilst trying to behave as adults, which for them mean alcohol and sex. So at first they appear immature. Their moods flip from serious to joking and back again. At one point the fast-talking, smart Antigone invents an alternative history with Haemon, her fiancé, which is sometimes funny. Baldwin and Hosker are both very good actors, particularly as the play is a very wordy and intense. Raczka has completely rewritten and modernised the dialogue whilst retaining Sophocles’ plot.
Baldwin and Hosker for most of the play are the teenage sisters, however they often narrate the other characters and sometimes narrate the events in each other’s lives, which is necessary in order to involve the other characters, inform the audience what is happening and move the story along. For me this creates too much exposition and sometimes lacks credibility. For example when Hosker as Ismene introduces other characters by saying “Hi Creon…” “Hi Haemon…” etc to Baldwin who then becomes those characters, it is clunky. When Hosker as Ismene narrates what her character does, after Antigone’s death, there is not enough acting and too much telling. I prefer it when Hosker becomes the characters with whom Baldwin, as Antigone, interacted. Confused? Well I was too at times. I also found it repetitive; the same things are said, the same incidents recounted over and over again. Eventually it is tiresome and tiring.
This version of Antigone is a brave effort to modernise the eponymous Greek Tragedy. I do not believe in this stripped back version, it would have benefited from a bigger cast, more acting and less narration by the two actors alone- which should have been left to the Chorus. Clearly the actors put their hearts and souls into this production and there can be no doubting their commitment to this project. Unfortunately for me it did not work; I was not sufficiently engaged, I was sometimes confused, but more often bored and tired.
Photo by Ali Wright.
Antigone is at New Diorama Theatre from 7 January to 1 February 2020. www.newdiorama.com