There are bolts of brilliance in Inua Ellams' twenty-first-century rewrite of Sophocles’s ‘Antigone’. He makes a play written two-and-a half-millennia ago speak more directly to the present day than pretty much anything else I've seen this year, offering stark takedowns of Islamophobia, the closure of youth centres, and the way that right-wing minority politicians abandon their communities. And he also creates something intermittently beautiful, celebrating Muslim spirituality in a way that mainstream culture rarely does. So it's frustrating that among these successes, the play slightly loses sight of the person it all centres on.
This Antigone (Zainab Hasan) is a weed-smoking, jeans-wearing rebel, part of a British-Pakistani family that's tearing itself apart. Her overlooked brother Polynices (Nadeem Islam) becomes radicalised, committing an act of terrorism that kills their sibling Eteocles. Rather than bowing to family ties, their politically ambitious Home Secretary uncle Creon (Tony Jayawardena) decides to make an example of Polynices, revoking his citizenship and ordering that his body be left unburied, denied traditional Muslim funeral rites.
The drama that follows centres on the clash between Creon, who's desperate to play to Middle England masses, and Antigone, who's willing to defy him to bury her brother with dignity. But although we see Antigone's struggles to save the youth centre she works in (cleverly represented by giant 3D soft play-style letters that spell out 'Antigone' and that fill the stage, only to be torn apart) and her strained-but-loving relationship with her sister Ismene (Shazia Nicholls), she doesn't feel fully realised, somehow. Hasan's performance in the role is captivating, full of boldness and inner conflict, but Ellams leaves her inner state as something of a blur as the narrative progresses: at one point she ties a hijab around her head, then discards it. Is she feeling conflicted about her relationship with Islam? It's not something the text explores directly.
Instead, this is a play about a whole community, something that comes to life beautifully in the punchy, rousing chorus scenes. Directors Max Webster and Jo Tyabji's approach is big and bold, making this feel a bit like a musical where no one sings: instead, the chorus shout out their frustrations against a bouncy, radio-ready soundtrack by Michael 'Mikey J' Asante, their movements honed by choreographer Carrie-Anne Ingrouille (who also did the honours for ‘Six the Musical’).