Setting Sophocles’ Antigone in a modern day Arab state makes sense for a lot of reasons. It is a place in which infamous lines sound urgent and new: ‘We must remember we are born women and are not meant to do battle against men.’ It is a place where, as in the original, to openly defy the government is to risk death. It is a place where religious devotion and government rule sit awkwardly together.
It is a reworking with great potential, which initially works well. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s adaptation, using her own translation, opens on Antigone, wearing a hijab, fiercely whispering to her sister Ismene, as guards stomp behind wire gates. Immediately, we sense Antigone’s exceptional bravery and the controlled, claustrophobic environment in which these women live and die.
The context is further fleshed out by the chorus who, early on at least, ensure there is high drama rumbling beneath the realistic backdrop. The chorus is initially composed entirely of women, who sing Arabic music as they process through the streets. They are mournful, emotional and strong. They suggest a world in which, if only women could sing in harmony more often, their voices might be heard.
But this opening procession is one of the few times the collective force of the chorus is felt. Otherwise, director Tom Littler has split up his chorus, attempting to create a realistic framework for these stubbornly formal aspects of Greek Tragedy. When the chorus members discuss what it is to be a man, they do so to a little boy. Often, the chorus’ incantations are split amongst a crowd of woman, each uttering a line and only occasionally wailing in unison. Yes, it means everything feels much more ‘real’, local and less explicitly performed. But it also starts to feel subdued and a touch too small, as the epic emotions in Sophocles’ play begin to burst forth.
It is isn’t just the chorus that lacks magnitude and emotional sweep that seem so vital to Greek Tragedy. The acting, on the whole, is too small. Much of the cast is fresh from drama school and some of the actors lack depth, stature and sheer oomph. Eleanor Wyld, as Antigone, captures some of the steely determination of this unique Greek heroine but she never strikes as someone truly exceptional. Wyld could do with projecting more strongly and really owning the stage but her diminished impact is largely the fault of the production. Within this localised setting, light on high blown drawn, Antigone feels a bit too normal. She seems impressive but not magnificent; superficially heroic but never really a hero.
Other actors feel similarly impinged by the context and have trouble reconciling the exceptional pitch of Sophocles’ play with this smaller-scale adaptation. Their lines often feel too big, their emotions too small. Jamie Glover is convincing as black-suited Kreon – played as politician and not King – but, although his coolly simmering performance works well at first, his final, gushing emotional outpouring feels awkward. And Edward Petherbridge as Tiresias has a terribly tough time as the blind prophet, his gloomy and stylised predictions ringing oddly amidst a town of soldiers, journalists and politicians. The only actress who reaches the emotional heights Sophocles demands is Deborah Grant as Kreon’s wife, Eurydike. She uses what little stage time she has brilliantly and strikes as both bullishly protective and beautifully tender.
In attempting to ground his production, Littler has created an intellectually stimulating but emotionally muted show. If only the drama had been amped up – rather than relying on constant and often superfluous sound effects – this production might have had more impact. If only the context could’ve been mined more carefully; Timberlake’s translation is a nice combination of blunt phrases and flowing lyricism, but it doesn’t make significant changes and, as such, only hints at the contemporary Arabic allusions. But, most of all, if only the formal elements of Greek Tragedy – the chorus, the epic emotions, the purposefully stark messenger sequences – had been embraced, rather than sometimes airbrushed out all together, this could’ve been something special indeed.