Antigone at Mercury Theatre, Colchester – review

A bold and punchy modern adaptation of Sophocles’ classic comes to Colchester

Wendy Kweh in Antigone
Wendy Kweh in Antigone
© Pamela Raith

Though fresh versions of Greek tragedies are something of a rarity on UK stages right now, Merlynn Tong's bold and punchy modern adaptation of the Sophocles classic Antigone is receiving its British premiere at the Mercury Theatre.

At the beginning of the piece, accompanied by the beautiful voice of Francesca Amewudah-Rivers (Ismene, who returns with a similar performance at the close of the show), a coffin lies on the stage: containing one of two brothers dead in a war-torn and state-controlled city. One is buried and hailed as a hero, whilst the other is denounced as a traitor with his body displayed to all as a sign to obey the ruthless new leader, Creon, in her rule.

Antigone grieves the loss of her two relatives and is bold and defiant in wanting to stand up to Creon's fierce leadership and unjust treatment in the death of her denounced relative: which leads her to an act of rebellion that will have terrible consequences for them both. The conflict forces them, and those surrounding them, to face up to what family, morality, justice and leadership mean.

At the helm of this story, therefore, is Wendy Kweh's Creon and Adeola Yemitan's Antigone – two wise, powerful and strong-willed women battling through a complicated divide. Both actresses give incredible performances throughout, deliver some punching monologues, and take you through a real emotional journey. Kweh's Creon was originally written as a male character, but showcasing a woman in power gives an entirely new layer to this piece. There is also sharpness and wit to her character, often being the only person to allow a rare and brief laugh.

The power of the set – from the decorated coffin to the almost crumbling concrete walls – immediately sets the tone and you know that a tale of destruction and tragedy lies ahead. There was an interesting break in the middle of the play that appeared to be a nod to modern divides: particularly the Black Lives Matter movement. Beautifully choreographed, this sequence almost jarred yet cleverly juxtaposed the history of this piece and the modern world.

Merlynn Tong's adaptation of Antigone is, quite frankly, a stroke of genius. The political and familial themes ring with relevance. If ever there were a perfect time to revive Greek tragedy, it feels like now – this is probably one of the best takes you will see.