Saturday, February 05, 2022

X’ntigone – a play for today (Prime Cut Productions and The MAC until 13 February)

X’ntigone (pronounced Zan tig on e) is trying to take back control of her identity and put distance between herself and her imperialist family. A plague has consumed the land, and when her brother Polynices protested at the draconian action, he was silenced – permanently – and a live stream of his corpse serves to dissuade others from rising up. X’ntigone has been under house arrest (or ‘quarantine’) and we witness King Creon’s attempt to get his niece to voice her support for him in the hour before he formally opens the Festival of Liberty.

You don’t need to be familiar with the original Sophocles play to understand this clash of political expediency and a youthful generation who want to challenge the old power structures. We even watch as the system actively mutes a voice it doesn’t want to hear.

“I’m not an old man’s story any more” asserts X’ntigone, later saying, “You’re just a ghost who doesn’t know he’s dead yet?” But right from the start, there’s a sense that X’ntigone is beaten. Her self-harming is the only real control she has. And when Creon looks like he’s losing ground, he’s really several steps ahead

Darren Murphy’s rich text – nearly too rich – is laced with phrases and nods to the kind of language and rhetoric we’ve heard from the Johnson government over the last two years. It’s a very contemporary piece of theatre.

X’ntigone is full of loss and calculated sacrifice. Murphy questions both authoritarian restrictions and the actions of those who challenge them. But don’t mistake it for a crass depiction of anti-vaxxers raging against the state. The different sides are much more interesting and full of nuance, full of aspiration and determination.

“We don’t live in a democracy, we live in its echo.”

Can anyone really hope to escape the people in power, particularly when they are already acutely aware of their weaknesses and past dark secrets?

The playwright sums it up well in the programme: “X’ntigone isn’t about the pandemic, but what the pandemic reveals to us about our democratic institutions, a contest between two irreconcilable worldviews.”

This 70-minute two-handed production is set around X’ntigone’s subterranean triangular glass cell that sits in the middle of a room hewn into the rock. The roof on Ciaran Bagnall’s set adds to the pressure, while Garth McConaghie’s sound design (with speakers dotted around the stage and the audience) envelopes the action right from the opening round of applause and emphasises X’ntigone’s physical and aural isolation. You’ll not get an aural experience like that on a webcast!

Little moments of script lunacy – the audience have a right old giggle at the mention of Lionel Richie – lightened the mood. Eloïse Stevenson spends the entire play trapped in her modernist dungeon while Michael James Ford is trapped on outside by his role and need to cling onto power.

With only a few square metres to play with, Stevenson evolves her character’s mood and demeanour, revelling in catching out powerful Uncle Creon before he crushes her optimism once more. Ford delivers a very stately performance – Creon probably enjoyed an Oxbridge education and a Savile Row tailor on his way to the throne – calm under pressure, and rarely needing to raise his voice. Emma Jordan’s fine directorial control of eyelines and height adds to the power play and gives it a stamp of real quality.

A coproduction between Prime Cut and The MAC, X’ntigone continues at Cathedral Quarter venue until 13 February

Photo credit: Melissa Gordon

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