Sophocles adapted by Roy Williams
Pilot Theatre, Derby Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East
Watford Palace Theatre
This version of the millennia-old Greek tragedy is a rethinking rather than a translation, an adaptation that seeks to make the old play live for today’s younger generation.
Pilot theatre, which produced it, specifically aims its work at young people and Roy Williams has already shown (in his work for this company and for Theatre Centre especially) that he knows how to connect with that target audience.
Williams’s adaptation keeps to the original story and close to its structure with only a little amendment but transposes it to the world of present-day gang culture. He has an ear for straightforward street talk that gives it a vibrant immediacy but he shapes the language to dramatic purpose and gives it rhythms that add weight, though they don’t attempt to emulate the poetic power of Sophocles.
He abbreviates classical names unfamiliar to a modern audience and a framing device suggests that this might be a nightmare of memories from which gang leader “King” Creo(n) can’t escape.
Fifth century BC Greeks would have already known the back-story of Oedipus and his family but here it is briefly spelled out. We see the fight in which Eto (Eteocles) and Orrin (Polyneices) kill each other and Orrin’s body is left on the ground. Creo takes over as gang leader and his edict that Orrin’s body be left, unburied, to the rats and dogs becomes a statement of his authority.
It is set in the no-man’s land of what looks like the rear of an underground car park, all concrete and trash-bins (which convert into purple banquettes when the scene shifts to a drinking club). Video projection sometimes adds a double perspective and, when Orrin’s sister Tig (Antigone) makes her second attempt to cover his corpse, Creo’s sentry not only arrests her but shoots the evidence on his mobile.
On seizing power, Creo has declared, “private good will not be me playing roughshod over public good, you understand? I will prove myself to you all, with every breath.” To let Tig off would not only undermine his authority but also break this pledge. The conflict between what she sees as her sisterly duty and his principles and their private interest is the dilemma that has kept this play relevant through millennia. What is the honourable thing to do?
While Creo says that he will do what is best for Thebes, there is some ambiguity in that Thebes here remains the city—should we take it that the gang runs City Hall? But perhaps that’s only something to be of concern to those familiar with the classic version or expect some direct political analogy. It is the individual’s personal decision that is at the heart of Sophocles’ drama, made even more difficult when Creo’s son, who is Tig’s boyfriend Eamon (Haemon), and wife Eunice (Eurydice) become involved.
This Tig never seems to question her decision, though Williams’s version sees her and Eamon attempting to flee Thebes. Savannah Gordon-Liburd gives her a stubborn innocence. She absolves her sister Esme (Frielda Thiel) from involvement, and simply does what she has to do rather than making a strong political statement against unbending authority.
It is Creo that becomes the more dominant in Marcus Romer’s production and Mark Monero plays him with authority, supported by his “soldiers” Lloyd Thomas, Luke James (who also plays Tyrese/Tiresias), Oliver Wilson and Sean Segar.
Wilson’s soldier gets to speak of God giving man choice and Tig addresses the CCTV as God. Religion and fate are minor elements and, though there is banter between the “soldiery”, Sagar's sentry doesn’t get the comic opportunities of the original.
On the other hand by showing more of his relationship with Tig enhances the role of Eamon and Gaba Cole plays it finely. He is also given a strong scene with his mother (punchily played by Doreene Blackstock). In fact it is Eamon, not the chorus or Tig who speaks out for the community.
I saw the play surrounded by teenage lads whose attention never seemed to waver and who applauded enthusiastically. This version worked for them: exactly the audience for whom it was intended.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton