Manchester Theatre Awards

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Antigone na h'Éireann (Antigone of Ireland) GM Fringe

James Beagon
Aulos Productions
Kings Arms, Salford
09 July 2018 to 10 July 2018

You have to give writer/director James Beagon full marks for cheek – adapting Sophocles’s Antigone to contemporary Ireland is a bold idea. What really impresses is, however, how well Beagon and the cast make the concept work in Antigone na h'Éireann.

In the near future, a hard-border Brexit has divided Ireland. Former IRA member Colm (Les Fulton) is now a Sinn Féin politician and wants to pretend the violence of the past never happened. However, his niece Annie (Jenny Quinn) is obsessed with bringing back the IRA. When Annie’s plans go awry, she comes into conflict with her uncle who wishes to set an example by refusing to allow the burial of Annie’s brother.

James Beagon does not limit the play to just adapting the plot from Sophocles; other aspects of ancient Greek theatre also appear. When not in character the cast wear immobile facemasks and form a chorus of shady terrorists, to create the frightening sense of a society where the faceless mob has control. At a crucial point Annie has to consider wearing a mask that will make her exactly like the father whom she idolises. The ultimate shame for the ancient Greeks was to leave the body of an opponent to rot unburied. Antigone na h'Éireann reflects this punishment, with victims of the IRA ‘disappearing’ so as to deny their families even the scant comfort of a funeral.

While Beagon may be writing about fanatics, he is not a purist and draws inspiration from other sources than the Greeks. The opening sequence, with a hapless group of would-be terrorists squabbling over the name for their movement, brings to mind Monty Python’s Life of Brian. In a fine touch, Annie, a devout Catholic, cannot emulate Antigone and commit suicide to frustrate her enemies as, by her beliefs, such action would be a mortal sin and lead to damnation.

Antigone na h'Éireann paints a grim picture of the Emerald Isle. There is an undertone of apprehension, as if all involved know violence is inevitable and might be postponed but not avoided. The play does not shy away from controversial issues – including same-sex relationships and the value of religious faith – and allows a reasonable level of discussion, rather than just using them for shock effect.

The ideals of the characters in the play border on obscene, so really the audience ought to hold them in contempt. However, Jenny Quinn plays Annie as someone worn down by her convictions rather than as a raving fanatic. With a blank stare and a rigid posture, Quinn seems more like a zombie than a revolutionary leader. In a very strong cast, Serena Doran as the manipulative Erin is another stand-out, showing the full human cost of trying to put right past wrongs by committing further atrocities.

There is a refreshing refusal to glamorise violence and revenge in Antigone na h'Éireann, so, although the play is bleak, the approach that an-eye-for-an-eye leaves the world blind is curiously uplifting. 

All of the elements needed for strong theatre – excellent script and a powerful cast – are present in Antigone na h'Éireann, making it essential viewing at the GM Fringe.

Reviewer: David Cunningham