Antigone in Manchester receives poor review

The wonderfully named Thalia Allington-Wood is not impressed.

Manchester Confidential

Antigone is a tale of raw emotion. Loss, grief, injustice, betrayal, loyalty, love and pride impregnate this most harrowing of tragedies. Daughter of the Oedipus, destined to destroy his father and marry his mother, Antigone’s life is one of unavoidable sorrow.

Her brothers Eteocles and Polynices, left to rule the city of Thebes, kill each other in battle, and leave their uncle Creon as leader. Creon, a tyrant, decrees that Eteocles shall be buried with honour fitting to a man who has died defending his city, while Polynices shall be left unburied, ‘to be devoured/by dogs and birds, mangled most hideously’. In refusing burial Creon not only dishonours Polynices, ‘but the Gods below, who are despoiled’ – they are denied a soul that is rightfully theirs.

Antigone, brave and resilient, defies her uncle and buries her brother in full knowledge of the punishment. Creon, outraged at her disobedience, sentences her to be buried. Encased in a rock cave, Antigone hangs herself. Creon’s son, betrothed to Antigone, kills himself out of grief, resulting in the additional suicide of Eurydice, Creon’s wife. Thus the Gods punish Creon: he is left alone, having paid for the two deaths he caused. As Tiresias foretells, Creon is forced ‘to make amends for murder, death for death’.

Unfortunately I found Greg Hersov’s production of Antigone at the Royal Exchange confused and unsure of the stance it was taking on the original text. It attempted to place itself both within Greek tradition and the present and it didn’t work.

The tragedy begins at dawn and ends at dusk. No violence is committed on stage. The chorus remains, though greatly diminished. Creon is sinful of hubris (overweening pride) and is punished. Antigone is the complete tragic hero. The set is representative of ancient Greece, dry cracked earth covers the floor, a funeral pyre of ash and sticks stands off centre.

Yet the costumes are modern. Non-descript suits, high heels, flowing country dresses that do not marry with the other visuals of the production. Creon delivers his speech like a presidential candidate and the messengers are army-clad soldiers. His refusal of the rightful burial changes emphasis. This is no longer about him shaming the Gods: it’s reduced to an argument about what’s humanly decent or not. The messengers are figures of fun instead of solemn bringers of distress. Several moments of overwhelming grief are stunted with sarcastic and comically delivered lines.

Now first and foremost Antigone is a tragedy. It is filled with awful and unjust events, pain and emotional suffering. It is at no point meant to be funny.

An example: Antigone is brought to testify in front of her uncle and Ismene, where she is committed to a terrible death. It is a moment of utter desolation. The sisters are never to see each other again; they are preparing for grief and death. When Creon, in Sophocles’ text, proclaims: ‘Of these two girls, one has been driven frantic, the other has been frantic from her birth’, a poignancy is added to their fate, Creon’s tyrannical rule is reiterated and the grief of the situation heightened. Antigone’s death is sealed with his unfeeling observation.

This production’s alternative line: ‘These women are lunatics!’ has the opposite effect. All gravitas falls away. The sister’s tears seem ridiculous. Creon becomes a comic misogynist. Instead of being overcome with sorrow, we laugh. The production seems afraid to let the audience feel the magnitude of the tragedy.

The original text, by Sophocles, is subtle but direct. It is an overtly political play, directly confronting the problems and dangers of anti-democratic leadership. It presents the importance of family bonds and honouring the dead. The words and events in Antigone are strong enough to carry this message, to be plainly relevant in any time period. I wish the Royal Exchange production had realised this. I wish it had been brave enough to stick to a decisive and clear portrayal of a heart-wrenching tale.

Despite these criticisms it is still not a bad performance. Audiences unfamiliar with the original, or interested in modern takes on classic texts, may well enjoy this production. It is a well acted, entertaining and engaging take on Antigone. It is important for theatre to revive old texts, attempt to bring them into modern contexts and to take risks. I applaud Hersoy for having done so.

My personal experience was to sit for the one and a half hours frustrated and annoyed. I have a pre-established relationship with the text. I have studied and formed a loyalty to what I think are the original intentions of the play. It is not that you shouldn’t see this production: you should. More that I would not want to go again.

Antigone, showing until the 8th of November.

The Royal Exchange Theatre
St Ann’s Square
Box office: 0161 833 9833

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