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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Antigone review – an explosive hour of fireworks | Theatre

It is ironic that this production reconceptualises Sophocles’ Antigone in a future dystopia yet captures the strong sense of ancient ritual, and spectacle, in this climactic Theban play.

Originally staged by the Classical Theatre of Harlem in 2018 and now streamed free of charge (the film is edited by Shawn René Graham and Ty Jones), the story of Antigone’s rebellion against King Creon comes with plenty of nods to our own age. A news ticker rolls out the latest on the warring brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, who are dead at the start of the play, the latter’s body ordered to be left untouched by Creon – rather than be buried – because of his disobedience against the state.

Directed by Carl Cofield, much of the production’s strengths lie in its focus on music (under Kahlil X Daniel’s direction) and choreography (by Tiffany Rea-Fisher), which feels as important as the text here. There are kinetic projections (by Katherine Freer) that scale the full breadth of the stage along with showers of light (designed by Alan C Edwards). A powerful chorus of singers switch from gospel to Afro-punk, and there is a parallel chorus of dancers.

A red-lit stage in Antigone
Fireworks of musical and visual effects … Antigone

The script swivels neatly between stately dialogue and modern-day vernacular, which brings amusement. When Creon is in the grip of a crisis over his decision to banish Antigone, he asks a chorus member: “Do you think I should concede?” to which comes the tart reply: “Is Harlem Black?” The sentry (Anthony Vaughn Merchant) who runs on to bring news that Polynices has been given burial libations illicitly, pulls out an asthma inhaler as he tries to catch his breath, and becomes his own ancient Greek standup act. “Poly-not-so-nices,” he says of Antigone’s dead brother, and sounds like a latter-day version of Shakespeare’s fool. He is hugely entertaining, although this comedy undercuts some of the play’s tragic depth.

This modern-ancient hybrid continues in every aspect of the stagecraft, including Christopher and Justin Swader’s set design of courtly marble stairs and a shrine to the dead with a host of placards. “Black Lives Matter”, reads one. “Justice for Polynices”, reads another.

Sisters Antigone (Alexandria King) and Ismene (Ava McCoy) are strong and ardent in their decisions to obey or disobey the king. Antigone has great dignity while Creon, played by Ty Jones, is a strongman leader in gold chains and cloak. That the actors play their characters rather flatly and with little nuance does not matter in light of the fireworks of musical and visual effects. Tiresias’s (Kahlil X Daniel) prophecy of doom brings melodramatic spotlights and floods of red. It seems to be part of a brazen intention to entertain, above all else. At only an hour long, it does just that.

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