Antigone at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre review: A valuable message blunted by heavy-handedness

·3-min read
 (Helen Murray)
(Helen Murray)

Though Inua Ellams started writing his version of Sophocles play five years ago, his adaptation reflects our current political climate more than any other production on in London at the moment.

It’s set in a recognisably modern Britain. Antigone (Zainab Hasan) is a young British Pakistani woman working in a youth centre that’s been forced to close, denying the young people who used the facilities an outlet for their energies. Her uncle Creon (Tony Jayawardena) is the home secretary, though he has his eyes on the top job and is on the campaign trail.

When Antigone’s increasingly devout brother Polyneices (Nadeem Islam) is killed after committing a terrorist act in which several people die, Creon is pressured by his Dominic Cummings-like adviser Aleksy (Sandy Grierson) to use the situation boost his career by making an example of Polyneices. His body will go unburied, refused Muslim funeral rites. Antigone cannot stand for this. It doesn’t matter what her brother’s done, she needs to honour him.

 (Helen Murray)
(Helen Murray)

Sophocles’ exploration of power, patriarchy, faith and what it means to be driven by conviction, remains resonant and over recent years there has been a spate of productions across the UK, reimagining it in various ways. Ellams – whose previous work includes the joyous Barbershop Chronicles and a critically acclaimed version of Chekov’s Three Sisters set in Owerri on the eve of the Biafran War – uses the play to interrogate populism and the politicisation of religion, the way in which Muslims are demonised and scapegoated in the UK, and the way in which a person can be made stateless if they transgress.

Hasan is a compelling central presence, conveying Antigone’s complex relationship with her own faith, with her husband Haemon (Oliver Johnstone), who is also inconveniently Creon’s step-son, and her determination to do right by her brother, no matter the cost. The always solid Jayawardena is also good as the conflicted Creon, who craves power and makes what he feels are difficult but necessary compromises, swayed by Aleksy with his constant talk about voter subsets in denying people’s human rights in the name of protecting Britain.

Leslie Travers’ set is dominated by pink letters with the consistency of a crash mat that are slowly dismantled and discarded during the early scenes as the youth centre is closed, leaving the stage empty. Max Webster and co-director Jo Tyabji’s pacy staging is interspersed with dance sequences set to Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante’s music in which the chorus reflect on the action or morph into a pack of journalists.

There is something refreshing about seeing these issues - the human consequence of inhumane policies - tackled on stage in such a direct way as well as seeing Muslim prayer and ritual presented with reverence and care, but at the same time there’s a lack of subtlety to Ellams’ approach which ultimately undermines the play’s power. The characters feel like vehicles for different points of view, and there’s a heavy-handedness that ultimately blunts its message.

Open Air Theatre, to 24 September; openairtheatre.com