Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London

© Robert Day

© Robert Day

Greek tragedies have a way of speaking to us in ways that constantly surprise by their apparent contemporary relevance – none more so than Antigone, the sister who is driven to follow her instinctive desire to bury a dead brother despite an interdict declaring him a traitor and therefore unworthy of a proper burial.

Her drive to do the `right’ thing, of course, lands her in trouble. The fact that the person giving the orders happens to be her uncle, Kreon proves no barrier to his condemning her to being buried alive as punishment for disobeying his orders.

Nor the fact that his son loves her and wants her to be his wife.

There is an immediacy about Greek tragedy that nearly always succeeds in resonating with present audiences, that and the fact that though the gods are always invoked as the malign manipulators of human lives, the human behaviour on show still recognisably corresponds so closely to our own. In over two thousand years, not a lot has changed. These plays have much still to teach and say to us.

Last week, London audiences could take their pick from two Antigones – one with a famous French film star, Juliette Binoche in the title role by a director much in favour, Ivo van Hove (multiple award-winner with his recent and now West End transferred production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge) – the other in a new version by Roy Williams in association with Pilot Theatre and Derby Playhouse playing in the East End at Stratford East’s Theatre Royal.

Williams, with a fantastic ear for street lingo and author of such successful and hard-hitting plays as Wildfire (about the police) Days of Significance (the Iraq war), Sucker Punch (black boxers) and Sing Yer Heart out for the Lads (football and patriotism), sets his Antigone in modern-day black gangland. `I always knew how I would do it, I just felt I knew where I would place it and how I would make it relevant,’ he writes in the programme play-text. For him the play speaks to issues of race and identity as well as power.

True to his word, there’s no disputing the visceral authenticity of Williams’ version or Pilot director Marcus Romer’s production. Opening with the vicious beating up of a victim (Antigone’s brother) by three men who look like a cross between thugs and soldiers, the tone is set for the rest of the play’s unbroken ninety minutes – a thunderous, sledge-hamming account that sees Creo as a quasi clubland king, played with some style by Mark Monero as a sly alpha male, challenged by Savannah Gordon-Liburd’s stubborn, lippy Antigone and ending in tragedy – the death of Antigone and Creo’s son, Eamon.

© Robert Day

© Robert Day

It has its moments in capturing the threat Antigone’s determination to bury her outlawed brother out of family respect presents to Creo’s ultimate authority – `fam’ is also the bonding word Creo uses to bind together his acolytes – and in the attempts by his son, Eamon (Gamba Cole) to advise his intractable father to bend a little to safeguard his position and his territory.

For the arguments in Antigone, as well as deeply domestic and familial, are also supremely, as interestingly in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, about power, leadership, flexibility, compromise. Deeply political with a small `p’.

Unfortunately, neither in Pilot’s version, nor disappointingly in van Hove’s more sophisticated, highly technical production, does the argument – so grippingly voiced by Sophocles in less ambitious versions I’ve seen – really get fully realised. Who’s law do you follow? Man-made ones or human instinct? Are we the instruments of our own fate/downfall?

It can be a fascinating, complex, emotional and intellectual tussle with the argument swinging first one way then the other.  Last week neither quite satisfied.

First published in Londongrip, March 2015