A refreshing take on a much loved tragedy
It’s the time of the year when we start to wind down for the Christmas break, forgetting the half-baked essays, missed deadlines and frantic all-nighters of the hectic term. Following my final supervision, I felt free and light for the first time in weeks. I really don’t know what propelled me to watch the tragedy of 'Antigone'. Perhaps I felt guilty for the lack of books I’ve read this term? Perhaps a part of me secretly enjoys the pain of Cambridge and needed it fulfilled elsewhere? Perhaps the transition from work to play was just too sharp? Whichever it is, I'm so glad I did.
Under Ben Galvin's direction, the performance uses Jean Anouilh’s 1944 script, a reimagining of Sophocles’ famous tragedy. Largely faithful to the original plot, the play explores modern concerns through the disagreements, debates and eventual destruction of a royal family from ancient Thebes. Following a failed rebellion attempt, the newly instated ruler, Creon, grapples with power, eager to assert his authority on the scarred city. He forbids the rebel, Polyneices, from proper burial rites, yet offers them to his equally traitorous brother, Eteocles. Horrified by the injustice, his tenacious sister, Antigone, defies Creon’s orders and buries him without his approval. The play charts the turmoil that ensues and the struggle between preserving power and family.
Paul Storrs' portrayal of Creon was brilliant; beneath the terrifying tyrannical façade, we see glimmers of a concerned uncle, desperate to keep his family intact and reluctant to punish Antigone. He goes from controlled and composed to furious and unpredictable within a moment, creating a compelling and – at times – frightening performance.
Aine McNamara's emotional range as Antigone is equally impressive. She starts the play resolute and confident, sure of her decision to defy Creon’s order. As the play progresses, she explores many layers of grief and its suppression. McNamara's Antigone is mostly defiant, often angry and occasionally manic, yet always sympathetic.
There is a particularly intense scene around the middle of the play where Creon confronts Antigone face to face. The emotions both actors reach in this scene are extraordinary and vital to a production like this, where the plot is well known and most of the action is reported, not performed. The acting alone engages the audience and these two actors do a tremendous job of keeping us on the edge of our seat.
An unexpected highlight of the performance was the soldier, Jonas, portrayed beautifully by Rosy Sida. In the modernised script, his role is drawn out more than in the original Sophocles and we are offered a multi-layered character struggling to understand his own authority. Sida brings out the comedic elements of Jonas, providing much needed relief from the heavy tragedy. In the presence of Creon, he cowers with fear, stumbling his words, yet when he is on duty with his comrades, he assumes an authority of his own, adopting a commanding laddish persona.
Sida also has a touching moment with Antigone, where she asks him to write a letter on her behalf for her fiancé, Haemon. He crafts the soldier in a way that feels raw and human. He is arguably the most distinctive character in the show: humorous, oddly caring and pleasure to watch.
The set design is minimalistic: nothing more than two boxes, a bowl, a chair and ivy that hangs from the ceiling. This production strips back the extravagance that one could expect in an ancient Theban palace. The focus really is on the characters and their individual struggles which presents the play as a family drama. We are reminded that it is as much about uncles, brothers and nieces as it is about kings, power and rebellion.
Unfortunately, the ending failed to do justice to what was otherwise a great performance. The messenger’s speech and Creon’s final lament felt flat and emotionless. All the sorrow and anger, which kept the production lively, faded away and the ending felt anticlimactic. When Creon admitted his mistakes, I expected a more passionate reaction. I wish we could have seen his regret drawn out properly on stage.
Nevertheless, the play is a fresh take on a classic tale. If you’re looking for something different to do alongside the Christmas cheer of Week Eight, I recommend this production. While the ending lets it down, it is still a moving exploration of grief and power, and showcases some truly tremendous acting. It is running at the ADC until Saturday – get your tickets here.