Antigone at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre – review
Inua Ellams' modern adaptation of the Sophocles tragedy continues until 24 September
Following the camp hijinks of Legally Blonde and canine capers of 101 Dalmatians, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre's most/only sombre offering of the year opens as temperatures drop and the nights draw in.
Inua Ellams' version of Sophocles' Antigone is embedded in contemporary politics. Creon Jafari has become the UK's first Muslim prime minister, elected on a moderate platform. To win the hearts of the electorate, he refuses burial to his nephew, Polyneices, who died instigating a terror plot. His niece, Antigone, who runs a youth centre in her flat (because the government closed the community one down), is determined to bury her brother. It's an incredibly timely concept but suffers from a lack of clarity in the storytelling – particularly the set-up, which has a run-on effect on the rest of the action – making it a largely frustrating rather than rousing experience. Furthermore, polemic has its uses but this is really heavy going.
Co directors Jo Tyabji and Max Webster's production is most effective in the way in which the chorus (accentuated with music by Michael ‘Mikey J' Asante and some clever choreography by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille) demonstrates how quickly and uncontrollably public opinion can vacillate. The government posthumously stripping Polyneices of his citizenship and abdicating responsibility even though he was radicalised in the UK echoes the case of Shamima Begum and with recent prime ministerial candidates trying to outdo each other over who can be most "anti-woke", little feels far-fetched these days.
As Antigone, Zainab Hasan discovers an inner resilience as a lapsed practicing Muslim realising the importance of her faith in times of crisis and Tony Jayawardena is persuasive as Creon, a capable politician once seen as a safe pair of hands driven to extremism. The romantic relationship between Antigone and Creon's stepson Haemon (Oliver Johnstone) doesn't come to life. More affecting, however, is Antigone's relationship with Ismene (Shazia Nicholls), who has always played by the rules but steps up for her sister in her hour of need. Eli London is also a late scene stealer as Tiresias, a data tracker who delivers a barrage of technical information narrated as a poetic stream of consciousness without taking a breath.
Leslie Travers' design comprises hot pink blocks spelling ‘Antigone' that are dismantled as her rights are taken away from her and, as always at this theatre, the lighting (by Jack Knowles) is essentially a beacon as dusk descends. This is a particularly dark offering for a theatre that has historically offered more pastoral fare. Programme diversification is, of course, a good thing but this production probably isn't likely to be one of most visitors' most cherished memories of this wonderful venue.