Sophocles, translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Southwark Playhouse

Antigone production photo

Modernisation is the fashion this week, as updated versions of The Cherry Orchard at the National and The School for Scandal at the Barbican are joined by this re-setting of Sophocles in the more earthy Southwark Playhouse on a simple set in which great stone blocks are the main distinguishing features, along with an illuminated coffin.

Director Tom Littler of Primavera has seen in the tale of Theban internecine strife parallels with contemporary political uncertainty a little further east. It is not clear whether the drama is unfolded in Iraq, Libya or one of their neighbours but the soldiers in a country under dictatorship and martial law wear desert fatigues and kufiyas (Arab scarves).

The story itself, in Timberlake Wertenbaker's traditional translation without a single contemporary solecism, is absolutely of the original period.

It centres on a battle of wills between Jamie Glover's calmly brutal King Kreon (all spellings are as per the programme) and his niece Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus.

This gritty girl, played very expressively by recent Guildhall graduate Eleanor Wyld, wishes to pay due honour to her deceased brother Polyneikes.

The problem quickly identified by her less stoical sister, Daisy Ashford as Ismene, is that Polyneikes died duelling with his brother Etiokles in opposition to Kreon. As such, his corpse must lie out until wild animals and birds have stripped the bones bare.

Antigone is left with a stark choice between mosque and state, knowing that if she buries her brother, she will be condemned to death. She doesn't bat an eyelid before signing her own death warrant, causing a fatal chain reaction.

Antigone is a play of conflicts between family members. Not only does uncle oppose niece, he also ends up fighting tempestuously with his more reasonable son who is also the girl's her fiancé, Kane Sharpe's Haemon, in doing so, alienating his own wife, Euridike.

By the end, the stage has been metaphorically littered with bodies at least in reportage, in a carnage prophesied by Edward Petherbridge's dignified but ironically sightless seer, Tiresias.

Tom Littler's original conceit pays off, as this Ancient Greek story does seem appropriate to some Middle Eastern states today. His large cast allows for a sizeable chorus, who simultaneously intone much of the narration.

In addition, they sing dirges and dance mellifluously, though at times, this removes the focus from what is anyway a gripping tale of intrigue and tragedy.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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