Inua Ellams’ update of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Antigone has been about five years in the making; it has finally debuted at the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park. Set in modern Britain, we are introduced to the titular Antigone (Zainab Hasan), a British Pakistani woman who has been working in a youth centre which has been forced to close due to cuts. Her uncle Creon (Tony Jayawardena) is the Home Secretary, although we are introduced to him while he is out campaigning, clearly set on becoming the next Prime Minister.
Much of this production seems incredibly timely – early on in the show we see the election of a new leader, with candidates pandering to specific subsets of voter groups using bespoke rhetoric. There’s also a focus on a significant, high-profile death which unfolds in the eyes of the media. Less successful is a debate about a proposed British Bill of Rights, which in the play is a new idea being considered by the Government; this doesn’t seem quite as urgent as the other contemporary issues, given this is an idea that has been debated for some time and recently discarded.
This production gets a lot right. In terms of representation across London’s stages, Antigone’s depiction of Islam is pretty unique – it spends a lot of time focusing on the faith itself, as opposed to politics or identity. Our leads are very strong – Hasan as Antigone is superb, clearly torn between her devotion to her religion, her husband and her brother. Jayawardena’s Creon is an excellent villain, making questionable decisions to appeal to certain demographics in the name of protecting Britain, but evidently conflicted while doing so.
Other characters are unfortunately less well-rounded and on occasion offer little more than being a mouthpiece for a particular political standpoint. Their interjections push the narrative along at quite a punchy pace but we felt the play could have conveyed its messaging with more impact if these characters were more believable.
Occasional heavy-handedness aside, Antigone is otherwise a success. This is recognisably a relatable vision of modern Britain and it doesn’t shy away from tackling many big issues of the day. It moves at quite a pace for what is still, at its core, a Greek tragedy, and its portrayal of Islam is unlike any we’ve seen on the stage before – and all the better for it. We’ve now caught everything at the Open Air Theatre’s summer season and they’ve saved the best for last – this bold and powerful social commentary is well worth a visit.
GAY TIMES gives Antigone – 4/5
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