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saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Antigone in New York
The Rag Factory
25th June 2015

★★★☆☆

Louise Beresford, Justin Cavell and Jason Davis as Anita, Sasha and Flea

Photography supplied by UWAGA Standing Room Only Theatre

Don't let the title fool you, Antigone in New York is actually a piece of Polish theatre. Not sure what Polish theatre is? Well, this was a first for me too. I don't know how typically Polish this particular adaptation is, but I can tell you Janusz Gowacki's script is an absurdist modern day take on Sophocles' Antigone and it's worth seeing if you can beg, borrow or steal a ticket to one of the remaining sold-out performances.

When Anita (Louise Beresford) finds out that her boyfriend Pauli (Michael Nowak) has frozen to death in the park, she enlists fellow rough sleepers Sasha (Justin Cavell) and Flea (Jason Davis) to help her get him back. The local authorities plan to bury him in an unmarked grave, but Anita desperately wants to give him a proper service in the park and inter him where his friends can visit and pay their respects. It's a pretty mad plan, but the protagonists are - well, quirky, let's say.

In some respects, this is a sort of comedy of errors, although the humour is never quite tight enough for this to be a farce. As you'd expect from the subject matter and themes at play, there's an inherent sadness at the core of this story: all three individuals are waiting for something which just isn't going to happen. Anita insists she'll get her furniture back and perhaps comes the closest to the traditional absurd idea of finding meaning in life in giving her boyfriend a proper send-off in death. Meanwhile Flea is waiting for his girlfriend to return and Sasha is going to start painting again, even though his hands won't stop shaking from years of heavy alcohol abuse. It's perhaps obvious to draw comparisons with the dishevelled tramps in Waiting for Godot who never got anywhere, yet it's also unavoidable.

The futile adventures of the three vagrants are bookended by soliloquies from Sergeant Jim Murphy (Padraig Lynch), a local cop. Initially he seems like he might be sympathetic to their homelessness, but he appears to delight in wielding power, with a dark glint in his eye as he hypothesises on the problems and fills in the gaps in the plot. As well as exploring absurdist themes - suicide, transcendence and acceptance - Glowacki's script humanises the homeless and draws attention to their plight. As Sasha casually remarks, "when you are outside, no one thinks you are a person".

Malgorzata Cohen directs all the chaos from a cluttered set, with The Rag Factory completely unrecognisable. Our central focus is two park benches, but there's a wall covered in colourful graffiti, plenty of flattened cardboard boxes and other packaging. Not to mention a whole host of random objects collected by Sasha and Flea, or Anita's shopping trolley full of her possessions, which she'll happily sell to the highest bidder. Simply put, this is a stage with a lot of stuff on it, and it deliberately tries to draw the attention away from the odd-looking protagonists.

There's a strange innocence in Anita's frantic behaviour. Fixated on one grand task at a time, there's a clear sense of wanting to please other people. Flea's constant fictionalised accounts are exposed by Sasha, who knows that his friend is making up rubbish, but doesn't particularly care. Although Cavell's accent wanders the most, his grounded portrayal of Sasha makes us warm to the stoic Russian. By the end of the 90 minutes, we see these three tramps and we really do like them. They're not part of the messy background to us anymore.

The pacing in the first half is sometimes a little slow, however after the interval, Cohen weaves together all the different elements and takes us to a startling and powerful conclusion. Antigone in New York is an intelligent attempt to search for meaning and raise awareness of an issue which sadly never seems to be solved.

Antigone in New York opened on 25h June and runs until 28th June 2015 the Rag Factory.

Nearest tube station: Aldgate East (District, Hammersmith & City)



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