Helen Rutherford-Gregory admires an inventive and inclusive rendition of Antigone, which creatively draws out the play’s modern relevance
As autumn draws in and the nights get darker, I could think of nothing lovelier than my first trip to the theatre in at least a couple of years. Arriving in the early evening darkness to find a friend waiting outside for me, we air hugged and headed into the warm glow of Chester’s Storyhouse to see Hollie McNish’s adaptation of Antigone, that I’ve been excited about for months.
We sat with a glass of wine as we waited for the ‘pre-show’ in the cavernous and buzzing lobby area. The room quietened and a chap started talking about Greek philosophers, making puns on their names whilst the giant screen provided subtitles, and someone gave a British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation. I say interpretation, but it was more of a performance, something that would continue into the play later. As the chap grabbed his ‘Ukeleleses’ (snort) and sang a little ditty, a musical extension to the puns, the crowd warmed and cheered. At the climax of the ditty, we were shooed from the lobby and into our seats, excited for more.
The stage was interesting, a huge stone wheel with a dipped centre, shrouded by a gallery of elevated benches, arena style. Simple but interesting.
The narrator opened fantastically, setting the scene, dramatically describing the battle between Polynices and Eteocles, which had taken place mere hours before the play begins. We also had a brief history of Antigone’s family tree. There were some hilariously graphic depictions of the story of Oedipus, which were once again all accompanied by a BSL performer who was constantly captivating, turning BSL into interpretive dance.
A clash of values
As the narration ends and the play finally begins in a flurry of ‘fuck, fuck, fuck’, because their brothers have both died, Antigone (played by Fatima Niemogha), and her sister, Ismene (Raffie Julien), are arguing. Their Uncle Creon is now King of Thebes in the wake of the flurry of death, and has declared Polynices a traitor and his brother Eteocles a hero. He decrees that treacherous Polynices be left unburied and shamed on a hill, and that anyone who dares bury him will be punished. Then we are back to the sisters arguing, with Antigone beside herself with grief, and mortified at the idea of her brother’s naked and unburied body. Determined to do the right thing, she tells her sister that she will bury him, with or without her help and damn the consequences.
Their dialogue is constantly given in BSL, the actors signing themselves, subtitled on a giant screen, and sometimes spoken (more often than not). The silent moments when they sign without speaking feel intimate, and the acting is exquisite. It really feels as though you’re watching a fraught conversation between sisters. This continues throughout the play; not a single line goes unsigned or without subtitles.
As Antigone disappears off alone to do the right thing, we meet Creon. He is perfectly portrayed as an arrogant, power-mad rabbit in the headlights, by Ken Christiansen. He has clearly not yet earned the trust of his people, and is constantly seeking reassurance from his court, who find his decision to leave Polynices to rot in the open as shocking as the audience does. Creon, once his decision is made, is too proud to change his mind and pushes on. When a messenger reports the burying of the body, he is immediately vengeful, and rather than directly shooting the messenger, tells him that if he doesn’t find and bring back the perpetrator, he will punish him for the crime. Antigone is quickly found and presented, and proudly takes credit for her crime.
You get a strong sense that Creon is nervous about the path he is taking, but that he is constantly battling between displaying the strength he expects of a ruler, and a fear of backing down when he feels he has gone too far, or worries his subjects might think he has. He sentences Antigone to death but the coward he is, he decides to leave her in a cave to die a slow death, unable to face the reality of anything more conspicuously brutal, however more merciful in fact, wanting to keep his hands clean of blood. With every decision he makes, his court lose faith in their new king and his subjects are turning on him.
The play is broken up with modern music, (Whitney Houston, Queen, Cardi B): the chorus, who are essentially the king’s court, take to the stage and perform snippets from numbers that complement the narrative. They’re not particularly brilliant singers, but the lovely melodies and group singing of familiar songs really does help to break up the dialogue, which can at times be a little heavy on the dramatic monologues. It’s during these lighter, musical moments that we see Antigone is in love with Creon’s son Haemon, who puts a reasoned case to his father for mercy, citing the anger of his new subjects, telling his father that the people are already muttering that Antigone was right to do as she did.
Creon refuses to see sense and digs his heels in, sealing Antigone in her cave/tomb. In the next scene we next see Creon speaking with Tiresias, wonderfully played by Jim Findley. Tiresias warns Creon that Antigone’s execution will be karmically avenged by the gods in the death of Haemon. This sends Creon back to the tomb to free Antigone. In the tomb, Creon finds Haemon over Antigone’s already dead body and, after a scuffle, Haemon fails to kill his father and instead takes his own life, dying beside his beloved, leaving his father in anguish and regret.
The story isn’t an overly complex one, but many students, like me, have spent hours pawing through it and analysing the content in Philosophy seminars. It’s fairly short with lots of themes to discuss. It’s ultimately about two individuals on a collision course. One defending man-made laws to keep order, and one defending divine laws of justice, presented then as the will of the gods. Neither will back down or compromise.
This particular adaptation by Hollie McNish for StoryHouse has made the story even more accessible, and the excellent performance by Fatima sharpened the monologues to really drive home the themes. There was such a strong feminist message, she gave me inspiration to fight harder for the things I already fight pretty damn hard for. She lit a feminist fire under one that already raged, fanned by Creon’s outrageous misogyny throughout. I’ve seen another reviewer conclude that this is a nod to recent events in Afghanistan, and whilst relevant, this misses the urgent need for bold feminism at home, when on average, three women a week are being murdered by male violence here in the UK.
McNish isn’t scared to be controversial with her poetry. She uses real speech, including swearing. She puts logical questions to us about ridiculous societal mechanisms. One particularly well known poem of hers was about how we see tits everywhere on billboards, but she finds herself sat on the closed lid of a public toilet feeding her baby, embarrassed. McNish is Antigone in her poems, seeing the moral right and fighting the absurd laws or social conventions that prevent that from operating.
I found myself contemplating issues such as groupthink, critical thought and political bravery. I willed the people to support Antigone and revolt, rather than rely on some godly force to impose karmic retribution. Such is Greek mythology. I found myself wondering about our leaders now. How far will they go to avoid bruising their pride? Where is the point of no return that passes and they push on with terrible policies? Will they all truly meet their just desserts? I wonder about how obsessed they are with opinion polls and social media, rather than their relying on a sense of right and wrong.
The show ended with death, and felt pretty grim as one would expect from this story, but Antigone rose from the dead and led a few verses of the Alicia Keys song, ‘Girl on Fire’, with a passion and abandon that was incredibly moving. In that moment, and only that moment, did I see the actress and not the character. I saw the freedom and chance to shine that Storyhouse, Hollie McNish and TripleC (an organisation for disabled people’s access to the arts and media) had rightly given these incredible actors. Only in that moment did I reflect on the beautiful diversity of the cast. I didn’t just see Antigone as the ‘Girl on Fire’, but Fatima, stepping out in her skilled performance. I do hope that as more people see the real talent and craftsmanship on show in this performance, more inclusive casts are rolled out into the mainstream theatre and the West End. To miss out on the art of these actors would be a real tragedy.
Hollie McNish’s Antigone is at Storyhouse, Chester until 23 October.
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