Cambridge in 2019 is a drastically different place to the Athens of 2500 years ago, where Sophocles wrote Antigone, but it is possible that the Paris of 1944 – still subject to Nazi occupation – is one of the few places more distant.
This was the world in which Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of Antigone was written and first performed, and it’s a backdrop which has conditioned every aspect of the response to the play ever since. The story told about the play is a neat and useful one, setting it up as an exemplar for artistic responses to totalitarianism and an illustration of tragedy’s relevance to the modern day; it’s a play about the French Resistance, the conventional wisdom runs, coded to make it past the Nazi censors.
But this analysis relies upon the story of the play itself being neat and easily unpacked – the story of Antigone, driven by familial duty and individual morality, standing up to her tyrannical uncle Creon by burying her brother against his orders, and finally paying for her defiance with her life.
That isn’t the story which emerges from this subtle and beautiful production, and it’s all the stronger for this thoughtful approach. From the very start, it’s clear from the intelligently restrained costuming and stage design (the latter in particular makes effective use of the Corpus Playroom’s limited space, building and intensifying a sense of claustrophobia throughout) that contemporary resonances are going to be left to the audience’s imagination, rather than shoehorned in. Ultimately, this play is far too complex, murky, and morally ambiguous to be seen as a a direct allegory or a clear political statement, and it’s precisely those moral ambiguities this production inhabits and explores with a depth I’ve rarely seen in Cambridge theatre.
The embodiment of those ambiguities isn’t Antigone after all, but the character who really seems at the story’s heart: Creon.
Paul Storrs’ performance is mannered and introspective, perfectly suiting a king who is described in the prologue as a lover of antiques and connoisseur of rare books. At the start, he is perhaps a little stilted, but he seemed to grow as the show went on, hitting his stride wonderfully in the central confrontation with Antigone. Here, he delivers a series of revelations, each one landing with a thumping shock. He then delivers two stunning speeches, effortlessly moving from a reluctant but ruthless ruler musing on what it means to be in power to a sad old man, begging his headstrong niece to accept life’s simple pleasures.
Antigone, however, sees herself in an altogether different mould to her uncle, and Aine McNamara does a superb job in conveying just why she does. Her Antigone is stuck; unable to communicate with others, unable to change her mind, and unable to pass from childhood into adult life. This might sound like a boring premise for two hours of theatre, but it turns out to be utterly magnetic; Antigone’s immovability presents an unbearable obstacle for everyone else in her life, and the tragic moment of transition she is frozen in is portrayed by McNamara with a startling range of emotion, from cunning political operator to frightened little girl.
Antigone’s stasis is clear from the very beginning of the play, when the Chorus – played with wonderful conviction and gentle irony by Rachel Oyawale – observes her sitting still, preparing to take on her role in this tragedy. This production focuses on the metatheatrical aspects of Anouilh’s work, which is a very successful decision from director Ben Galvin; this is a play about tragedy, and about the situations which we are trapped in beyond our control. Antigone and Creon are united, with terrible irony, in being the only characters who are truly aware of this.
Antigone knows that she is doomed to fail, but goes on with her strange act of rebellion anyway, apparently for herself alone; Creon knows that she has cast him as the villain, and does not want to play the part, but is eventually left with no choice.
Only one group remains indifferent, untouched by the forces which hurry all the other characters along their roads to ruin: the guards, who will simply obey orders, and leave moral considerations out of it altogether. They are played a little too brashly, but this is one of very few flaws here.
The characters are richly drawn, the performances are special, and the music deserves special praise – haunting melodies, sung by Oyawale as well and setting the atmosphere perfectly. Indeed, she gets the final words of the play, in a gut punch of a finale which the whole show seems to be driving to. This is not a cheerful show, but it is a riveting one, and it is profoundly rewarding to experience.