There’s a bit in Sophocles’ Antigone that I’ve never been able to understand. Just before she is led to her death, Antigone explains her reasons for defying the law to bury her brother, a traitor to the city. She declares that if she had lost a child or a husband she would not have buried them, because she could have found another, but, because her father and mother are both dead, she could never get another brother. There’s something alien about Greek tragedy and about the motivations of its heroines and heroes. Holy What’s new version brings the play closer to a contemporary audience in some ways while still preserving its strangeness.
Lulu Raczka’s script distils the story to focus on the core relationship between Antigone and her sister Ismene. At the start, they seem like any other teenage girls, working out which bars they can get into without being ID-ed and discussing sex with equal prurience and bravado. But they’re not any other teenage girls: they’re the incestuous offspring of Oedipus and Jocasta. (Raczka tackles this backstory with deadpan humour. ‘Our dad had sex with his mum’, Ismene points out. ‘Well I think people are over that now’, retorts Antigone). They’re also the sisters of Eteocles, ‘the good brother’, and Polynices, ‘the bad brother’, who fought and died on opposite sides of the war; one is buried like a hero; the other is left to rot.
All the elements of the production, directed by Ali Pidsley, come together to create a rich and striking aesthetic. The opening image is of two corpses, face down in the dirt, on top of a burial mound made up of gold concentric circles (designed by Lizzy Leech). The corpses are breathing and glittering gently. The corpses stand up and become Antigone and Ismene, dressed in sequins and grubby taffeta – princesses with an edge. When Antigone ventures off the mound – both gilded cage and refuge for the girls – to bury Eteocles, she heaves up a sheet of metal, cutting the circle in two. It is a striking visual metaphor for the growing rift between the sisters and, with Ismene crouched on one side talking to Antigone through the wall, anticipates Antigone’s sentence: to be imprisoned in a cave until she starves to death. This is accompanied by chilling sound design by Kieran Lucas, the roaring, scraping, breathing reverberating into unburied bones. Antigone faces down the storm, staring offstage into the haze and lights.
Pidsley’s direction responds to the disorienting and exciting shifts of theatrical idiom in the script, which alternates heightened poetic images with keenly observed, naturalistic dialogue and humour. Amidst the overlapping layers of theatricality, the question of what is real flutters just out of reach, frustrating and enticing. At times, the modernisation takes away some of the impact of the tragedy. The gods are absent from this world, when one of the central conflicts in Sophocles’ play is between fallible human law and divine law that decree the dead be appropriately honoured. Raczka’s Antigone does not even believe in an afterlife, which begs the question of why she felt it necessary to bury her brother. Principle, Antigone asserts. Egotism, Ismene counters.
The relationship between the sisters, so sensitively and recognisably drawn by Raczka and the performers Annabel Baldwin and Rachel Hosker, drives the play. While it is Antigone with her fierce bravery and uncompromisingness who dominates in Sophocles’ play, it is Ismene – the younger, timid, law-abiding sister – I am drawn to in this version. Antigone’s heroism comes to seem like rashness and absolutism. ‘You could just say sorry’, Ismene pleads, managing to seem at once naïve and pragmatic. Running out of arguments and knowing that she has no hope of winning against her older sister, Ismene bursts out, ‘It’s just so you. Dying for things’. The sisters both know each other too well and are unfathomable to each other. The heart-breaking question that underscores her efforts to change Antigone’s mind is why Antigone would choose her dead brother over her living, breathing sister. Like me, Ismene cannot understand and, as demonstrated in a beautiful final monologue, does not come to understand. Most people are not tragic heroes. With Antigone, Holy What has created a tragedy for us.
Antigone is on at New Diorama Theatre till 1st February. More info here.