X’ntigone review: Contemporary spin on Greek tragedy loses its way

Murphy’s script is alive to recent politics but shift into our own era is not always smooth

X’NTIGONE

Abbey Theatre, Peacock stage
★★☆☆☆

The Greek city of Thebes, or the version of it depicted in Sophocles’ plays from the 5th century BC, is no longer a far-off destination. Reports of a freak plague surging through the metropolis will resonate with just about everyone now, as it brutally upends peoples’ lives.

It isn’t a coincidence that this seems an act against nature; for the Greek gods, contagion is how you punish a killer stained with incest and patricide. It’s pertinent of Darren Murphy’s new version of Sophocles’ play for Prime Cut Productions and The MAC to show that such symbolism is no longer required. In an underground cell, we find a woman dressed in everyday modern clothes, confined behind gigantic Perspex planes. Is she in quarantine from a real infectious disease?

Known to everyone as Antigone, the niece of the city’s leader Creon, she stands before us now as X’ntigone, an imprisoned rebel played passionately by Eloise Stevenson. Why the name change? “X is the symbol for the first unknown variable in an algebraic sequence,” she explains. There you go.

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There is reason to believe she is an unpredictable agent; a displeased Creon, having felt it wise to jail her, is carrying out an interrogation in the hours before announcing the end of the pandemic to the nation. Murphy’s script is alive to recent politics, the gains to be made from delivering stirring rhetoric in a crisis. Creon, in the enjoyably bluff intonations of Michael James Ford, is preparing to thank the frontline workers.

In moving the classic into contemporary times, Creon is still an autocrat seizing power and quelling rebellion. X’ntigone’s brother Polynices, a member of a resistance movement which has been awakened to the political corruption exposed by the plague, has been killed and left dead on the street – a reminder of brute force left by the king and, for an angered X’ntigone, of burial rites going unobserved.

The transition into our own era is not always smooth. X’ntigone’s resistance movement, making demands for political change and the tearing down of statues depicting past criminals, carries out its attacks by unleashing new variants of the virus. Privileged complacency and egotistical hysteria are symptoms of our own age – can we not help but look on X’ntigone as an anti-vaxxer?

There is a sense of the play’s central idea losing its grip, as its ancient stand-off gets spun around by our bold new world. Perhaps that’s why director Emma Jordan seizes the connection to the play’s more futuristic references, to advanced technology and biological warfare, to usher us into a world that’s not quite our own: the high-tech cave lair created by set designer Ciaran Bagnall.

Still, without the arrivals and departures of the secondary characters from Sophocles’ play to ease the flow of exposition, this deadlock becomes crammed with information. The most discrete and enjoyable power struggle is between generations, of seeing Creon stupidly mistake X’ntigone’s name change as a declaration of a new gender identity. “The gender fluid stuff. Fascinating,” he says. Okay boomer.

Runs until Saturday, March 26th