Southwark Playhouse, London SE1
Opened 20 May, 2011

Antigone is a drama about a conflict of values: the diktats of an unresponsive régime versus a sense of religious propriety that is both devout and militant. In the circumstances, I am surprised that this is the first Middle Eastern setting of the play that I have seen. Antigone’s determination to observe the proper burial rites for her dead rebel brother Polyneikes in the face of her uncle King Kreon’s prohibition is especially resonant in the wake of Islamic offence at Osama bin Laden’s burial at sea: she could flippantly be characterised as a suicide mourner.
In Tom Littler’s production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s articulate new translation, Eleanor Wyld’s quietly resolute Antigone and all the Theban women are modestly, Islamically covered, in contrast to a female aide of Kreon’s and a news reporter who wear western-style suits. The Theban troops wear combat fatigues and keffiyehs together. There is no doubt that this is located in a land very similar to post-war Iraq. When Jamie Glover as Kreon gives a voice-of-reason argument about the necessity to be seen to be strong even against members of his own family, he could as easily be declaring that there is no alternative to the sudden and radical privatisation of the national economy.
But for every cleverly judged decision, there is at least one countervailing instance of excess. The choric songs and dances come over as exotica, especially accompanied as they are by David Allen’s obtrusive, unsubtle programmed score. As the blind seer Tiresias, Edward Petherbridge is in more dire need of directorial discipline than I have ever seen him, fluting his voice and wafting all over the place as he delivers his prophecies of woe (or of “Whoah!”) to Kreon. Even Glover mars an otherwise strong performance at the climax with excessive, and excessively classical, grief for his now-dead son and wife: “Ee-aye-ee-aye!”, he wailed, and I could not help adding under my breath, “-oh”. I hope these touches are present in spite of Littler, but I fear the extra-textual ones may be at his instigation. The production needs to trust the play and the conceptual analogy more; there is no need to over-burden matters, we can get the point perfectly well without.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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