Frieda Thiel and Savannah Gordon-Liburd in Roy Williams' Antigone. Photograph: Robert Day
Frieda Thiel and Savannah Gordon-Liburd in Roy Williams’ Antigone. Photograph: Robert Day

In Roy Williams’ modern day Thebes, women are only ever referred to in the basest of terms. They are bitches, skets, yats and skanks. Antigone, powerfully played by Hackney actress Savannah Gordon-Liburd, is herself frequently described as ‘the inbred’, thanks to her Oedipal parentage.

She works in a grubby nightclub owned by her sharp-suited uncle, the self-styled king of the underworld Creo, played ferociously by former Eastenders actor Mark Monero.

Although we never discover exactly what her position of employment entails, it is understood that both ‘Tig’ and her sister Esme (Frieda Thiel), a cleaner at the venue, should be grateful for the work.

This is the landscape of the play. A culture deeply opposed to women that is ripe for an overhaul. In the original Greek text, what follows is a challenge to that dominance by the most unlikely of heroes. A person who, with incredible determination and courage pierces the very heart of the prevailing system of power, prejudice and inequality.   

But what Williams’ adaptation gives us is merely the continuation of that system. Facing constant derision on the grounds of her gender, and with her protestations falling on deaf ears, Antigone has no agency with which to challenge her uncle’s will.

Making Creo such an out-and-out bad guy (he wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond movie) proves a disservice to the complex characterisation of Sophocles’ play. Once Creo condemns Tig and sentences her to death, he proceeds to sadistically keep her alive, apparently for days, whilst he endlessly insults her and repeatedly reiterates her fate.

Though the idiomatic script is raw and pacey, it is a shame that this seminal dramatic work needs translating into street slang to make it relevant to a contemporary audience.

Likewise, that it was thought that the best way to appeal to the East London public was through the prism of violence and gang culture, is problematic in the least.

Antigone, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square, E15 1BN until 14 March.

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