Tom Littler’s Primavera production of the play is both compelling and credible. The simple, stark compound setting within the vaults of the Southwark Playhouse, which sets the conflict in the Middle East of today, allows Timberlake Wertenbaker’s poetic translation to reflect and resonate the epic themes of the past as well as to explore the current clashes of a patriarchal society where personal loyalties and family ties are confronted by local laws that contradict and countermand free choice.
Antigone, ill fated daughter of Oedipus, is torn by filial love, duty and honour to bury her brother who has been declared a traitor and persona non grata, denied the rites of burial and with a death warrant for anyone carrying out those rites. Whereas her sister Ismene feels constrained by her femininity and by the laws of the city, Antigone feels that as they are not those of the Gods but those of man so they can therefore be disobeyed.
Jamie Glover’s Kreon is an engaging, enigmatic and powerful portrayal of a ruler in crisis, determined to maintain the upper hand at all costs, mistrusting all around him, believing that everyone has their price, distrusting even the soldier who brings him news of the attempted burial.
He is well matched by Christopher Ragland’s guard, who holds his own in the stand off, and in the interchanges with Haemon and Tiresias the tension is well maintained as Kreon is begged to look beyond his blinkered view and see the damage that is being caused.
This version, in trying to stay faithful to the original Greek format, has song, dance and choral speaking, and whilst the staging is superb, the choral work, be it sung or spoken seems intrusive, and at times incomprehensible, interrupting what is after all a battle of minds and wills, a debate on ethics and morality. Sadly the clash of styles and the somewhat archaic over articulated text inhibits any empathetic engagement: in the end it is Kreon who has our sympathy for Eleanor Wyld’s Antigone is out of her depth and uncertain how to play this complex character resorting to shouting as her way of defence, rather than showing control in her resolution.
At 90 minutes this is an abridged version that in places conflates rather than illuminates the central themes but the staging and the setting give enough food for thought. Who is right and who is wrong? As Antigone says "if my deeds seem stupid, perhaps it is because they are stupidly judged." Judge for yourselves.