EDINBURGH 2018 - BWW Review, ANTIGONE NA H'EIREANN, Paradise in The Vault
The ancient Greek tragedy Antigone is a hugely versatile piece, lending itself well to adaptations to situations far beyond its original Theban setting.
In this new version by James Beagon, the play is set in the near future, where Brexit has resulted in a hard border with Ireland and consequent return to sectarian violence. This is a setting that works well with the themes of rebellion, religion and family relationships of Sophocles' original text.
Antigone is reimagined here as Annie (Jenny Quinn), the daughter of a major dissident republican figure. She works with her siblings towards honouring her late father's legacy by fighting for a free Ireland.
Their uncle Colm (Les Fulton), also has a background in the darker side of the republican movement, but has since gone legitimate, as an Assembly Member for Sinn Fein. When Annie's brothers are murdered and one framed as a loyalist by his killers, the remaining family members clash over how best to respond without harming their cause.
There are several clever parallels made in the script between the original play and its new setting, from its handling of Annie's father's downfall, to the focus on The Disappeared providing an inspired analogy to the importance of proper burial in ancient Greek culture. Beagon, who also directs, has chosen to pay tribute to Greek tragedy in the use of masks in the traditional style, at the same time neatly evoking the anonymity of balaclavas used during the Troubles.
That said, the script could have done with more editing. The beginning scene where the siblings argue over how to present their new republican group, with comic echoes of The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Monty Python's People's Front of Judea sketch, was entertaining, but almost felt like the set-up for a different play.
Too much time was wasted in early scenes on essentially futile arguments, with frantic direction and overuse of lighting changes belying the lack of any real tension. The play would have been better served by moving more quickly towards the double murder that marks the beginning of the meat of the piece. Likewise, characters needed more articulation of their motivations, and audience members less familiar with the Irish Troubles may well struggle a little to understand the siblings' aims.
The script is supported by competent performances. An especially effective moment was the contrast demonstrated by the zealous Annie and cynical sister Izzy (Emer Conway), even as they prayed in unison. Likewise, Colm's evident pride in son Eamonn (Thomas Mugglestone) as he proves himself able to take a part in the republican cause was a quietly potent piece of performance from Fulton.
The play was at its strongest when it was able to focus on interpersonal relationships between the characters and their contrasting beliefs, and needed the space to be able to concentrate on these more.
There is a lot here to commend, and with some reworking, this could be a truly impressive adaptation of a great play. The inspired ideas behind it add a lot to an already engrossing tale. Worth seeking out for any with an interest in either the classical inspiration or the more modern setting, Antigone na h'Éireann is a piece with a lot of potential - fascinating, contemporary and relevant.