For the most part it works but having a Muslim family at the centre of it has both advantages and disadvantages…now in its final week before the curtain comes down for this season at the open air venue…
THIS is a powerful, swirling, involving play that may stay with you in the memory.
A Greek tragedy by Sophocles, it was originally penned in 441BCE. It’s a classic that has endured – and now in the hands of playwright, poet and spoken word artist, Inua Ellams, it has been given a sharply contemporary edge.
From ancient Greece, we’re on the streets of present-day London and Antigone (Zainab Hasan) is the unofficial leader and icon of a group of youths being turfed out of their ‘squatted’ premises.
Both this and the original are about family loyalties – pitting blood relations against those of conscience and beliefs.
While Antigone is down with the kids and feeling their pain – her uncle Creon (Tony Jayawardena) is rising the greasy pole of party politics and, at the start of the play, is home secretary.
From the very same Pakistani Muslim background (explicitly referred to in the programme by Ellams), Creon reads the social situation very differently.
There is chaos and disorder and young people are not doing the right thing – protests over an ‘illegal’ youth club are misplaced. The law is the law is the law, is his basic tough line. He believes his faith is on his side.
The youths for their part have been downtrodden, dismissed and this place they have inhabited is one of sanctuary, brotherhood and kindness.
Around Creon, there is a coterie much impressed by his steeliness – they aid and support his rise to the top job. He becomes Prime Minister. Antigone’s sister Ismene (Lydia Bakelmun) is drawn to her uncle’s campaign and represents the moral conscience of the family as the plot unfolds.
The allure of power conquers any doubts Creon may have and he is simply not that sort of guy anyway – he is all straight lines, black or white, right or wrong, nothing in between.
Our Kingdom is restive and much agitated and there is further conflict within the family – Antigone’s two brothers – Polyneices (Nadeem Islam) and Eteocles (Abe Jarman) are on different sides.
Eteocles is a policeman, while Polyneices is distraught about the youth club and cannot understand why the state is behaving as it is. He takes matters into his own hands and launches an attack as a protest and kills both himself and Eteocles.
Immediately, we have two very different narratives about the dead brothers.
One is lauded as a hero – the other vilified and denied a proper Muslim burial – to which Antigone will dedicate herself – right or wrong in defiance of the law, but in accordance with their faith.
A populist movement gathers around her and her husband to be, Aleksy (Sandy Grierson), a publicist, begins to feel the weight of his fiancée’s arguments.
Creon is adamant – Polyneices went against all reason and faith – in no way was he pushed (by the state) to do what he did – state sanctioned violence is acceptable, and necessary, he argues – it is there to maintain order.
Therein lies the dilemma Sophocles imagined – what is the nature of resistance to power – righteous or not.
Ellams’ modern telling is dynamic and entirely relatable and this production has much to commend it from the language to the theatrics of the open air stage.
However, the principle narrative puts Muslims and radicalism centre stage and is that quite so necessary? We don’t doubt for one minute the Islamophobia that exists in society – but the theatre is a place where we can combat those forces and break them down for what they are.
It’s great to see an old classic given this contemporary treatment and Ellams is an exciting and powerful voice, but this retelling contains a few familiar meta and media tropes that left us a tad uncomfortable – maybe, it’s just that we need far more more plays that are just about ‘ordinary’ Muslim families and individuals. (Sailesh Ram)
Acv rating: *** ½ (out of five)
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, The Regent’s Park, Inner Circle, London NW1 4NU. (September 3) until Saturday, September 24. Booking: https://openairtheatre.com/tickets