Only two beers for lunch today and I am hurrying to catch the Emanuel Theatre Company’s production of “Antigone,” which is presently playing at quarter to two in the Radisson Hotel. There is something very stirring about the word “Antigone.” I like its solemn resonance on my tongue, but unfortunately I very quickly discover that it should be pronounced “Antigonny.” If my comprehensive education has let me down once again, this production turns out to be the work of the in-house theatre “company” from Battersea’s high-achieving, high-performance Emanuel School.
What is it with these snotty schools? At my school, we did “Oliver” and our drama teacher would have sooner cut her own throat than take it to the Fringe. I invariably get into trouble when reviewing these school productions, because I make sure not to patronise the kids by overcompensating with uninhibited beastliness. But “Antigone” will not require too much beastliness – the cast are mostly equal to the demands of what is a very demanding play. In fact, this “Antigone” was actually pretty good, and at under £5 a ticket, it is very good.
This is Jean Anouilh’s “Antigone” and Emanuel have set it in an alternative-reality WW2, in which the allies find themselves being led by a dictator. To modern audiences, the WW2 costumes may assume a sinister, alien quality. Fighting for its survival in WW2, the British state had for once enjoyed an unprecedented popular support. WW2 Britain was led by what was technically the country’s only ever communist government. In observing the intrusion of the state into the private world of grief and commemoration, however, this “Antigone” imagines a WW2 in which the state ends up rewarding the people with a stinking corpse rather than the Beveridge Report.
Yet Antigone (Olivia Ditcham) never really knew the brother for whom she will sacrifice herself. She will never argue from a point of principle that his body should receive proper burial rights, and she will instead fend off Creon’s attempts to dissuade her from what is effectively suicide with a boorish and narcissistic insistence upon her own destruction. Creon seems to think that the reviling of Polyneices’ body will uphold the integrity of his state, but any emerging moral dilemma could be negated with a technical solution. The state could simply conspire to bury Polyneices in secret. Creon’s tyranny and Antigone’s sacrifice are henceforth entirely unnecessary. Theirs is a failure of political competence rather than of morality.
Antigone offers only an empty, symbolic opposition to Creon. The people themselves, who are represented by the Chorus and some good-natured guards, remain ultimately unmoved by Antigone’s sacrifice. It is merely a little difficulty within the ruling class. The Chorus find the tragedy “restful”; the guards end the play with a card game. Antigone’s puppy-fiancé, Haemon (Joe Quinn), who slips and flops about the stage in his love for her, pointlessly stabs himself in the stomach and expires. The guard Jonas (Pip Williams) was likewise shot in the stomach, but he has since gotten over it.
This production may also capture some passing contemporary colour. The dictator Creon – whose portrait hangs over the stage, cross-eyed and with tiny lips – bears some possibly accidental resemblance to that fashionable dictator of the moment, Bashar al-Ashad. Moreover, this “Antigone” is encased around Samuel Mitchell’s powerful depiction of a stuffy, paternalistic Creon. No doubt because it is a school play, this Creon often strides around like a furious headmaster, possibly observed as a sports day slides into meltdown, with battalions of lost cross-country runners racing through his head. He thinks that the smell of Polyneices’ flesh will set the people an example. Perhaps they could just do without him.
[Tychy could not procure the names of the director/cast at the time of going to press. I’d be grateful if anybody could post them using the comment box below. Ed.]