New Diorama Theatre, London – until 1 February 2020
Holy What’s version of Antigone is about the two teenage girls at the heart of the play, Antigone herself (Annabel Baldwin) and her sister Ismene (Rachel Hosker). In Lulu Raczka’s new version, the two play out a fantasy teen life – drinking, parties and sex – in what we come to realise is a prison – their uncle Creon’s home, where they are forced to remain while their brothers, Eteocles and Polynices fight a civil war over their city. When both are killed, Creon prohibits all from burying the body of the rebel Polynices, abandoned outside the city walls, on pain of death. Antigone does so anyway, and no-one can quite believe it when Creon insists on enforcing the penalty – starvation in a cave.
These events are seen through the eyes of the sisters, released by Raczka to tell their story. This refocusing of the classics through female perspectives is a growing trend, both in books such as Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and in the work of other companies, in particular By Jove Theatre. It provides a thrilling new perspective on a story that is ancient, but always current. Antigone’s principled, suicidal refusal to apologise to her uncle is driven by a particularly teenage moral certainty. The question of whether it is more adult to stick to your principles regardless of consequences – or to make sure, above all, that you are there for others – seems entirely modern.
Raczka’s free-as-the-wind adaptation expresses the action in utterly convincing millennial language, full of dead-pan qualifications, hesitancy and apparent lack of self-confidence. It is something of a revelation to hear actors on stage speaking in the way people of their age talk every day, presenting us with a way of talking so familiar we scarcely notice it. The simplicity of Rackza’s writing is masterful not least when Antigone, contemplating the reality of death, rewrites “To be, or not to be” for the 21st century: “What if there’s, like, thinking about it, once it’s happened?”
Directed by Ali Pidsley and staged in a Greek theatre circle filled with cinders, the production is confident, absorbing and thoroughly impressive. The two performers, Baldwin and Hosker, hold the audience’s attention effortlessly. Baldwin is plays Antigone as much younger than she thinks she is, but heartbreakingly determined to overcome her fear of death. Hosker’s Ismene grows up very suddenly indeed, as the games the two played together at home become real and it becomes clear that her sister is no longer playing.
The play’s ending, as Ismene stands alone on stage shedding her teen glitter and relating the rest of her married, adult life is a powerful moment and testament to the shadow Antigone has left that will never fade. Holy What’s production is excellent – filled with energy, imagination and originality – and it sets a high bar for the new decade.