Sophocles, translated by Don Taylor
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Production photo

On a dry, cracked, uneven mud ground with a pile of blackened branches at one end like a funeral pyre, Sophocles's interpretation of the story of Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, is played out in the Royal Exchange Theatre's latest main house production.

After the deaths of her parents, Oedipus and Jocasta, her brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, fight over the throne of Thebes and kill one another. Her uncle, Creon, takes over the rule of the city and buries Eteocles with a hero's funeral, but casts out Polynices as a traitor and leaves his body unburied. Antigone is determined to give her brother the dignity of a proper burial, but Creon declares that anyone disobeying his orders will be punished by death.

Greg Hersov's production is played straight through without an interval and runs at about an hour and three quarters. Onto Laurie Dennett's very impressive-looking set, through the grand wooden gates, the cast appears wearing modern-day clothing with the men in business suits, which produces an image more of a company board meeting than a fierce battle for control of a kingdom.

Mattie Houghton plays the title character as a strong, determined, stubborn young woman, so her decision to face death rather than give in to her uncle's will seems perfectly natural. Ian Redford's Creon is certainly stubborn and self-righteous, but he does come across more like a company chairman than a king for a lot of the time. However he is allowed some great moments that really stand out, such as the very powerful scene when he is confronted by his son Haemon, played superbly by Ben Addis, which builds up slowly and subtly to become a major moment in the play. Creon is really the subject of the tragedy in this play, despite its title, and Redford does a good job of focusing the action on him as the controlling force.

Andrew Sheridan does a very good comic turn as the soldier that acts nicely as comic relief without taking the audience out of the play. John Watts creates a powerful presence in a single appearance as blind seer Teiresias. Nicholas Cass-Beggs appears between scenes in some movement pieces to Arun Ghosh's music, which look very impressive and give a break between scenes but do not seem to have any relevance to the story.

The Greek chorus is provided by single voices from people standing around or sitting on rocks who appear to be business advisors to Creon. They whip up the audience to get them to clap for Creon's first entrance, as he walks in like an American evangelist, shaking hands with spectators.

Don Taylor's translation (strangely he is uncredited in the programme, although he does get a biography amongst all the information about Greek mythology) feels quite modern without being trendily contemporary with dialogue that flows quite well for most of the time. However there is one short scene near the end to prepare for Eurydice's entrance that has some extremely stilted and contrived dialogue describing things that both the audience and the two people on stage can see happening and don't need to be told about.

As was the norm in Greek drama, a lot of the main action happens offstage and characters come on to tell us about it. That works well for most of the play without losing the audience's interest, but the ending seems to be drawn out for such a large proportion of the play with more and more lengthy descriptions of terrible things happening elsewhere that it would be nice to actually see something other than people apologising for bringing bad news. When Eurydice is introduced as a character right near the end and is told about her son and Antigone, it isn't too difficult to guess what is going to happen but it seems to take a long time to get there.

Overall, there are some powerful moments in this production and plenty that works well, but despite being one of the shortest productions you will ever see in the Royal Exchange's main house, the ending seems to drag somewhat and there were a few nodding heads in the audience on press night before the end.

Until 8th November

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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