It’s ‘Antigone’. But not as we know it. Lulu Raczka’s very free take on Sophocles’s ancient tragedy pulls the focus right in, telling the story with just two characters: doomed, defiant Antigone (Annabel Baldwin) and her beloved sister Ismene (Rachel Hosker).
Raczka’s approach is essentially realist. She reduces the epic scale and considers what life might be like for the two teenage girls – younger siblings to brothers who have shattered their city-state of Thebes in a fratricidal civil war – if these events were somehow happening today.
In Ali Pidsley’s pacy production the pair start off half-buried in the black sands of Lizzy Leech’s striking circular set. Shortly thereafter they spring to life for a frantic and fun opening section in which they cackle about boys, sex and booze, and dance joyfully to Destiny’s Child. It’s only when they work themselves up to defiantly go out for a drink that the darkness starts to intrude. The drinkers stop talking to stare angrily: they know who the princesses are, and that it is their cursed family that has plunged them all into war.
If you know the original story, you’ll know what happens next: their brother Polynices’s body is brought home from war and dumped outside the city gates, with burial forbidden on pain of death. Antigone decides she’ll do it anyway; when she does, she refuses to make the apology that would save her. Why is she throwing her life away like this? Baldwin’s ebullient Antigone – Tig to her friends – seems to thoroughly enjoy life before deciding to take this stand. Ismene can’t get a consistent explanation out of her. Antigone repeatedly says she doesn’t care what other people think but, as Ismene asks, in that case why not make the apology?
Rather than ending with Antigone’s death, Raczka’s play continues with a lengthy monologue from Hosker’s grief-stricken Ismene, in which she details both the hours and the years after her sister was killed, set to the elegiac drones of Kieran Lucas’s sound design. Where Antigone was snuffed out early, Ismene’s life wears on and on, with ups and downs but always haunted by the sister who died. I’m not sure Raczka is as didactic as to say Ismene was the braver one, to soldier on through life while Antigone stormed out in a blaze of defiance. But the conclusion is typical of a smart, sad, empathetic play that has sympathy for both the ferociously uncompromising teen – perhaps too new to life to cling on to it as she ought – and the sister who chose to live on in a hazy half-death.