Antigone review – gender switch sparks striking take on Sophocles

The chorus has been banished, the cast of five has no room for Eurydice and, most strikingly, Creon is a queen in Merlynn Tong’s streamlined take on Sophocles. This British premiere, directed by Dawn Walton at the smartly renovated Mercury, has a shrewd design and is well performed even if the emotions and arguments don’t always crackle as they might.

Wendy Kweh plays Creon as more politician than tyrant, repeating her slogan, “One heart, one city, one Thebes”, from a lectern as if at party conference. Kweh convinces as a ruler intent on rebuilding the city; she sees Antigone’s burial of her brother Polynices not as an act of private duty but a display of public terror that threatens social cohesion at a time of crisis. In a superb sequence, the burial is shown to literally take place behind Creon’s back after she has forbidden it.

As the gender switch mutes the misogyny of Sophocles’s Creon, Tong accentuates conflict in terms of youth and age. Antigone (Adeola Yemitan) is repeatedly undermined as just a girl by Creon, who also turns on her son Haemon (Joseph Payne), snidely describing him as a “seedling”. His retort that she is the childish one makes her flash with rage. This Creon is a lady not for turning: she tells Haemon that no woman has previously held her post and she will be seen as weak if she wavers. She confides in her son, whom she cossets, and his declaration that no other union can mean more to him echoes Antigone’s prioritisation of love for her brother. Kweh’s heartbreaking final scene aligns her loss of Haemon with that of her other son, Megareus.

While you well believe that Yemitan’s defiant Antigone has veins of fire, as she restlessly paces the stage with eyes blazing, she also gives the character a petulant streak that slightly dampens the drama. The same is true when Kweh’s businesslike Creon swiftly seeks to dismiss escalating tension rather than erupt in rage.

With deftly presented parallels, Tong shows these lives racked with grief and pride, betrayal and loyalty, while weighing up the conflicting principles at play. Simon Kenny’s stark design evokes both an ancient Greek forum and Antigone’s tomb, its deteriorating pillars matching the text’s motifs of decay: even Tiresias (Emma Dewhurst) is described as an “ancient crumbling rock”. But without a chorus or a stormier soundscape, there is not a strong enough sense of the city at large or of collective pain, except for a powerful sequence of projections from Black Lives Matter and civil rights campaigns that fill the stage. This Antigone is an activist who becomes part of a movement rather than a solo voice.

Though sensitively delivered by Francesca Amewudah-Rivers, who is a heartfelt Ismene, the songs that punctuate the story in lieu of a chorus are not as rich as Tong’s dialogue, which is often powerfully delivered in rat-a-tat stichomythia. Dialled up a notch, this could make a gripping 75 minutes because Tong’s punchy adaptation burns brightly.

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