It’s no secret that Greek mythology has stood the test of time because of its universal relevance. Ellen McDougall, Director of the Unicorn Theatre’s Greeks season has celebrated both this fact and her venue’s young audience by choosing to adapt the tale of Antigone. Her piece sees Kanga Tanikye-Buah take the role of the hooded, eponymous heroine who is all set to wed Haemon, an attractive Abercrombie & Fitch type with a Home Counties accent. Already, Grecian high status is re-imagined for a youthful, modern audience. On top of this, what kind of parent wouldn’t be charmed by a company who can re-brand Sophocles while still appealing to youths with a rebellious streak?
At its most simplistic, Antigone is the story of a young woman with values that she is willing to fight for. Crossing forbidden territory in order to give her brother the dignified burial she feels he deserves, Antigone’s crime is in choosing the law of the Gods over the law of the land.
Fittingly, this production forces us to enter an off-limits location. Trespassing into the studio theatre under yellow tape we – like Antigone – are stepping into a prohibited zone. Immediately placed into the central character’s shoes, we’re off to a promising start.
Unfortunately, this production doesn’t let us stay with the young heroine for long as her time spent on stage is minimal. Antigone doesn’t even appear until quite far into this short, digested tale. Her death, too, happens off-stage, meaning that the supposed heroine is not even honoured with a sense of poetic martyrdom. With the exception of one rebellious “Bloody hell!”, it’s all very family-friendly and such censorship makes it hard for us to feel truly ‘present’ in Antigone’s anguish.
Sadly, the character development does little to compensate for these occasional appearances. Dialogue conducted in overwrought accusation does little to articulate the script’s true emotional punch. Good tragedy, regardless of its audience, should incorporate a crescendo into disaster. Here, the volume remains largely unchanged. Antigone’s interactions with her sister, Ismene, come across as over-earnest, and the heroine appears far too sophisticated. Strong-willed, articulate and a little too static, Tanikye-Buah’s Antigone is powered more by reason than emotion, coming across more like an unlikely politician than an everyday tragic role model.
But when the production pauses for breath and lets us see its sillier moments, Alex Austin’s Tom emerges as the true hero of the play. Working as a professional guard, Tom is a wide-eyed Dogberry type who makes endearingly ineffective attempts to express himself. With a peg on his nose to mask the smell of Polynices’ rotting corpse, Austin does his bit to deliver this ancient story with the animated kind of humour so horrible it could have been ripped straight out of a Terry Deary book. Tom’s presence as an unlikely hero is reinforced by his status as the true every-man, brought from the peripherals of the play.
Swinging between urgency and triviality, this conflicted play fails to settle down enough to deliver the plausible, everyday humans that tragedy so urgently relies upon. Its promise to tell the tale of one ordinary individual who fights for what she believes is compelling, but tragedy relies on nuance and, in this fully-skimmed 60 minute edit, genre was the greatest victim.
How To Think The Unthinkable is playing at the Unicorn Theatre until 19th May. For more information and tickets see the Unicorn Theatre’s website.