Making an ancient Greek tragedy fresh and new is daunting. Nonetheless, Marina McCready makes a valiant attempt in her reimagining of Sophocles. Antigone. Now a musical, the story of Antigone – with a new ending – feels lighter and more convivial, welcoming audiences with its catchy comedic songs and minimalist decor. McCready does a fantastic job rewriting the characters from the original play, giving them new depth. However, as Creon sings, “Everyone Needs a Villain,” and sadly, the villain of this show is its structural and tonal issues.
Tungsten Tang’s excellent work as a set designer accomplishes the almost impossible task of filling the huge auditorium at Robinson College, while still being spacious and bright. The minimalist Greek-inspired columns and vines are tasteful and subtle, leaving the band and the cast to take center stage. Placing the group on stage is also an enlightened choice, allowing a nice moment of interaction between the trumpeter and Haemon (Rebecca Williams). The set design works wonderfully with the self-referential jokes and metatheatrical tone of the show, reminding audiences that after all, this is a play. This attitude gives the show a lot of leeway in terms of musical numbers. While the lyrics and choreography can seem a bit derivative at times, all of this can be forgiven as part of the show’s own awareness of its place as a play. Some might say that the fourth wall breaks are tired, but in this production they serve to refresh an old play.
“The group numbers shine and the small cast manages to produce beautiful and rich harmonies”
It can be argued that McCready’s reimagining is even more faithful to the source text than some more sophisticated productions. A return to musical structure returns to the songs of the original Greek choir, and the brief but well-placed audience participation reinvents the interaction of the Athenian polis. Not all songs quite hit the mark; some feel a bit weak, but only compared to the dynamic potential that McCready and Felix Elliot demonstrate in some really powerful pieces. The group numbers are particularly shining and the cast, undoubtedly small, manages to produce beautiful and rich harmonies. The Act I finale was a powerful and creepy number, especially compared to the sparsely populated songs in the rest of the act. The production may have benefited from more spoken word interludes to break up the constant vocals – but it’s a musical, after all.
Where McCready departs from Sophocles, she does so in an engaging manner. His reimagining of the characters of Haemon and Ismene was particularly interesting, showing their weaknesses and strengths in equal measure. Ground-breaking moments also show a new side of the main character, especially when Antigone’s facade turns into fear when imprisoned. Sukanya Subramaniyan’s acting undeniably does Antigone justice, but the series really should get a fame Ismene. McCready leaves the character much more room to shine than Sophocles ever did, and Marianne Ryall is simply breathtaking in the role. Her voice soars and it perfectly presents the emotions of the young princess. A particularly moving moment is when she laments her nearly lost sister, wondering “who is going to mend her broken heart.” All of the actors perform McCready’s script masterfully, portraying comedic highs and tragic lows with equal tact and skill. The audience remembers the humanity of the characters in front of them: their family relationships, their fears, their losses. Together, the actors create some truly poignant moments.
“All the actors brilliantly perform McCready’s script”
Ultimately, the tragedy of this production lies in certain structural and tonal weaknesses. While the solo songs are fantastic for developing McCready’s reimagined characters, their preponderance throughout the piece makes her seem somewhat rambling. The scene changes are expertly brisk, so audiences are sometimes in shock after an emotional soliloquy turns into a comedic group act. The comedy of the production is not necessarily a problem; although Sophocles Antigone is a tragedy, McCready’s is absolutely not.
There were moments, however, that let the show down. As much as the gods songs about the ‘dumb little mortals’ that populate the stage are performed hilariously by Katy Lawrence, Ollie Taylor, and Jacob Robinson, they unfortunately create a slight tonal problem for the rest of the piece. The audience is put on the same plane as the gods by the self-referential jokes and the breaking of the fourth wall, so when the gods ask why the characters “take everything seriously”, the audience is left with the same question. The otherwise moving story of Antigone and Ismene, sisters struck by an unimaginable tragedy, loses something. The hopeful tone McCready is trying to create cannot quite reach the heights promised.
Antigone: The Musical has big Greek shoes to fill, and he’s really doing his best to fill them. The actors’ efforts are not in vain: Jack Lawrence’s Creon is as big and mean as he promises, Yaz O’Mahoney’s Tiresias is hilarious and lovable, and Williams and Ryall shine like Ismene and Haemon. Sadly, the structure and tone of the musical let it down, severing the wings of a production that was otherwise poised to fly. This light show triumphs, however, with its emotional depth and endearing characters.
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