A seedy backstreet in Thebes, littered with various enigmatically juxtaposed items of junk, not to mention a serendipitous motorbike, the whole overlooked by an enormous deformed nude, from the arm of which gazed out an all seeing eye - perhaps a relative of that of Dr T J Eckleburg of Great Gatsby fame - formed the highly symbolic Dali-esque set of this singular and emotionally powerful rendering of Sophocles’s harrowing masterpiece, fast-forwarded 2500 years to an undefined 1960s totalitarian location.
This was a production in which there were no junior partners in the quartet of set, lighting, music and acting, though occasionally it did seem as if the first three had conspired successfully to downplay the importance of the fourth, to the extent even of drowning their voices, apart from that of the inflexible tyrant Creon, who, like Julius Caesar prides himself on being ‘constant as the northern star’ until it is too late.
Deceptively simple, in the sense that relatively little actually happens within the play - most of the action having happened either immediately before it starts or even earlier in the first part of the trilogy - Antigone is a hugely challenging assignment for any non-professional company, let alone a school. Its emotional and psychological power are fully the equal of those of any other play ever written, and need to be conveyed within the relatively static and formal constraints of ancient Greek drama. And this production certainly did not lack emotional power. From the angst-ridden opening dialogue between the two damaged sisters - their mother was also their grandmother - the steely Antigone (Jessica Walker) and her fragile sister Ismene (Amelia Woodruff), played to the atmospheric barking of pariah dogs, right through to the final cameo when the deeply sinister Soldier (Tom Knight), looking every inch the Gestapo officer, sneers contemptuously at the crushed and humiliated tyrant Creon (Hugo Scott), there was no opportunity for audience attention to wander. Hugo managed to sustain his ‘sneer of cold command’ until the final scenes and made a very convincing Creon. But for me the most striking performance came from Haemon (Harry Al Adwani), who, in a performance of real stature, rejects his father in favour of his betrothed, Antigone, with whom he chooses to die.
Memorable, if a little eccentric, performances also came from Joe Bell as the rather insouciant Sentry, who has the unenviable job of reporting to Creon that his order to deny burial to Antigone’s rebel brother has been disobeyed, and Tiresias, played by the irrepressible Tiger Vechamamontien, whose dramatic progenitors appeared to be Jonny Depp and Keith Richard.
Such was the intensity of this production that it was hard to believe that all was over in 70 minutes. With a set, lighting and the haunting music of John Tavener, whose death was announced two weeks ago, not to mention music to accompany the musings and moralisings of the chorus composed by our own Caroline Besterman, it was often difficult not to imagine oneself in a professional production.