Antigone (Theatre Royal, Stratford East)

Roy Williams returns to Theatre Royal Stratford East with this new production, relocating Sophocles’ classic to an urban, contemporary world

The cast of Antigone at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East
The cast of Antigone at Theatre Royal, Stratford East
© Robert Day

Roy Williams says in an introduction to his new version of Sophocles’ tragedy that it’s much harder to adapt a classic play than to write a new one. You’d never know. His relocation of "downtown Thebes" as a gangland manor where Antigone ("Tig") defies Creon’s ("Creo’s") decree seems natural to the point of obvious.

Whatever the process, the script – presented at Stratford East in a co-production with Pilot and Derby Theatre – is as fast, racy and idiomatic as anything Williams has done, as though the challenge of the timeless story has in fact raised his game.

This is a world of dark suits and dumpster trucks that are lined with mauve banquettes, dark alleys and steel wire fencing, hoods and hoodlums, night time retribution. Tig, played with a snarling, riveting ferocity by Savannah Gordon-Liburd, breaks "family" rules in covering the body of her murdered brother.

This action shakes and rattles through the underworld and leads to the famous face-off between a defiant Antigone and dictatorial top cat in the shape of Mark Monero‘s smooth and sharp-suited Creo. You might argue that in confining the action to a street level squabble Williams misses the reverberating state v citizen analogy in Sophocles.

But he’s made this adaptation so tight, Creo’s crew so solid, the language so raw and specific, that the meaning expands through the detail. And there’s an extra dimension of misogyny in the dubbing of Tig as a troublemaker and traitor in a culture where all women are expendable skets or bitches. It’s the rapper rebound Tig is personifying, and her fury results in a fate that is far worse than death: contempt and exclusion. She’s thrown in a hole like a dog.

It will be fascinating to see how this version of the play, very well directed by Marcus Romer, compares with next week’s big international production by Ivo von Hove starring Juliette Binoche at the Barbican. Will the eternal truths be more abstract? Roy Williams and Pilot have reclaimed the play, made it their own, as vividly as Athol Fugard did in apartheid-era South Africa, or Jean Anouilh in Occupied France.

The play lives, disturbs and moves audiences wherever the battle lines are convincingly drawn, and the Stratford East audience, coming, I imagine, fairly new to the play, were as shocked as they were surprised by its message of resistance and bravery in the face of repression in all its forms.

Antigone runs at Theatre Royal, Stratford East until 14 March 2015. For more information and to book tickets, click here.