New Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2
Opened 21 September, 2004

This year, the New Ambassadors Theatre in London's West End has instituted a brief season called Edinburgh Exported, featuring a slate of offerings from last month's Fringe: theatrical shows in the main evening slot, followed by late comedy. Whilst in many ways it's an inspired and welcome move, the initial selection doesn't offer much solace to those of us trying to argue that theatre on the Edinburgh Fringe is holding its own against the dominance of what is in effect a comedy trade fair. Glyn Cannon's Gone may be the flagship of the Ambassadors season, but it's one of only three theatrical pieces in a schedule of 15 or so shows, and the only one of those three that isn't a comedy.

Gone is a smart 55-minute update of Sophocles' Antigone into the world of modern politics and warfare. We first see Creon, king of Thebes, on video, making a press statement explaining that his vanquished rebel nephew Polynices is not to be given a burial. The narrative content is pure Sophocles, but the vocabulary and performance are those of up-to-the-minute political rhetoric: resonant buzz-phrases, a delivery straight out of Statesmanship 101, deft sleight-of-logic... all the tricks we've grown to know intimately over the past couple of decades and increasingly, of course, in the war-of-words on terror. Later, in another all-too-familiar tactic, when Antigone steals her brother's body to bury it, she, Creon and his son (and Antigone's betrothed) Haemon all try implicitly to claim moral privilege as being the principal victim of the situation.

Cannon's adaptation shows a sharp intelligence in making the point that "War is over, but wartime fucking staggers on." However, he doesn't always hit the bull (in whatever sense). I understand his choice to punctuate his rhetorical poetry with a generous sprinkling of Anglo-Saxon expletives to represent how politicos (such as the Chorus, a trio of policy wonks) speak in private; the problem is that, under Hannah Eidinow's direction, they swear with an odd, crisp prissiness, as if trying too hard to shock. Such delivery only succeeds in eliciting audience sniggers, not least at the self-consciously literal description of Antigone's dead father Oedipus as "the motherfucker". It's a puzzling misjudgement in an otherwise strong production, with Nigel Hastings and Julia Hickman as the main antagonists but Alastair Kirton's Haemon also deserving of particular praise.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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