Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Young breathe life into antiquity


Warwick School Classical Society

Bridge House Theatre, Warwick


For a school – or indeed a section of it - to engage with the challenge of staging an entire Greek Tragedy is no mean undertaking.

Even in translation it requires a calibre of verse speaking, a quality of stylised movement, a refinement of characterisation and an application and tenacity that place heavy demands on young shoulders.

Warwick School Classical Society has already impressed me, mightily, with its staging last year of Sophocles’s play Ajax, a drama of unusual type in its depiction – not wholly intelligible to modern sensibilities – of the decline of a man’s mind into raving lunacy on the sole basis of damaged pride.

The impressive Peter Borsada as the despotic Creon - a grim and harrowing interpretation. Pictures: Peter O'Grady

It required an actor of unusual range and sophistication, and amazingly, it found a powerful one in Peter Borsada, then a fifth former and not yet 16, who is increasingly revealing himself - on varying stages - as an actor of palpable force and poignancy.

This year Warwick staged Antigone, a Sophocles drama which Ajax may even predate (both are clearly early works) and infinitely better known. For these plays director David Stephenson has again amassed a motivated cast drawn from all ages: the chorus alone spans at least three generations.

That they harness so well, speak so attractively (one or two on occasions a little too niftily) and bring a wisdom beyond their years to the skilled pacing and emotional urgency of this vexed drama – the pitting of one man’s dictatorial vanity against virtually all the rest of the cast – speaks volumes for these gifted young players, whose empathy with each other in and out of role generates the unique kind of chemistry that makes a Warwick Classical play a treat to behold and a joy to hear.

Borsada’s special talents for on-the-edge characterisation brought him last year into close affinity with Ajax’s (as here) five-man chorus, in an absorbing and if anything more terrifying performance.

They were his salve, his gentle advisors, his sympathetic hearers, who strive to save him from the inevitable. Here they have a similar role, but stir scant response from Creon, unexpectedly cast as Theban ruler, who seems to lack the noblesse oblige of Boiotia’s true line of decent. This man is a bully, a bigot, and in the end, a ruler shorn of all the basic instincts of wise and decent leadership.

Borsada makes him this and much more: a ranting hypocrite, the scourge of his family and an entire nation, a despot who believes shouting is the solution to everything. He ignores his confidants, his council, his duty sage, his wife, his son, his prospective daughter-in-law; he consistently misses the point.

Chloe Wilson, principled and commanding in the title role with some of the most impressive speaking of the production

Sophocles has made the unrelenting – though finally penitent - Creon almost too hard a character. His ranting offers little scope for en route redemption; yet what I would have liked from Borsada, and Stephenson’s production, might have been a way – not easy - of introducing chinks of light into Creon’s viewpoint: for from that might have stemmed more light and dark, and certainly more air, in this play.

Borsada’s range is spectacular, and this Creon was indeed visibly wrongfooted; but it did not here extend sufficiently to flickers of doubt, moments of being taken aback, subterranean suggestions of inner conflict, psychological clues to a diseased personality, whispers of humanity even if they are instantaneously spurned. It might have helped this dauntingly powerful individual performance – so consistent though not so varied – grow and expand. For drama to work at its conflicting best, Creon arguably needs to be less of a headless chicken. As it is, we got a masterly display – from an actor whose range elsewehere extends to the shy and touchingly benign, and will shortly encompass Samuel Beckett - of root and branch tyranny, and a pleasingly accurate, literal enaction of what Sophocles actually wrote.

Chloe Wilson excelled last year as Ajax’s inamorata and captive, the shrewd Tecmessa. Although Antigone is almost excised from the last parts of this play, leaving her bethrothed (the king’s son Haemon), the equally doomed queen and the aged Theban seer Teiresias to join battle with Creon, her posture betrayed a princess and her speaking was some of the most impressive of the evening.

When she and the son are suddenly revealed rear stage (the Athenians had various devices for rolling out corpses at Attic tragedies’ dénouements), in searing brazen light hurled from above, it is a tableau of amazing power and indeed tragic beauty, with the imprisoned Antigone found self-hanged and Haemon stabbing himself in grief. There were plenty of other effects, achieved with modest yet striking resourcefulness.

The use of scarlet light on the already scarlet-clad chorus had a gripping, threatening, intensifying impact all its own; white pinpoints from above used to pick out Creon, small groupings or a hunched chorus worked marvels (Technical Director: Richard Cooper, Lighting Operator: Michael Ballard).

Creon (Peter Borsada) reacts with disbelief to the prophet Teiresias (Alex Cottrial)

Warwick’s cogent set and costumes were a marvel: impressive authenticity in tunics and other attire, a well-judged restricted colour scheme, and pillars and benches that looked the part rather than cardboard cutouts.

But above all, the music – often a long sustained, haunting chord that suggested not just danger, but divine forces ominously at work behind the scenes – was a glorious success. Jack Borland handled the sound and got the balances and levels all perfect.

As last year, I enjoyed and found something in each one of these young actors’ performances. Olly Layzell proved the best spoken of the chorus team, but both energetically and subtly supported by the four other sensitive members of an able team (five works wonderfully well, visually and audially), including a promising youngster, Thomas Walter (it would be nice to see him, with experience, turn into a Borsada).

Bryn Jones especially impressed me last year as a youthful Odysseus, Ajax’s sympathetic supporter. He seems to have expanded his range: the strength of his Messenger speech and subsequent exchanges near the close had a tangible and beneficial impact on the last stages of the play.

So, to a large degree, did Alex Cottrial, a relative youngster, as an unbroken voiced Teiresias: he had a depth to him, a measured manner of delivery so crucial for showing up Creon’s intemperance; and blindfolded, he was nicely and attentively led in by Louis McAuliffe. 

A chance to praise, early on and towards the end, Lucy Evans’s cautious Ismene, not overborne by her sister and not without a feisty, not necessarily diametrically opposite character of her own; and Claudia Rivers, who served up an instinctive Eurydice (Creon’s ill-fated Queen) who is all too aware where this is leading: to her own self-inflicted demise, not least.

The effective five-man chorus  with Joe Turner, the chorus leader in the centre, surrounded by, left to right,  Thomas Walter, Harry Jenkins, Olly Layzell and  Rory Gill

But the character who brought the central section alive was Elliot Grocock’s Haemon, engaging in full battle with his father and spouting a vast amount of sense, which came over forcibly in the Robert Fagles translation. The high drama of this scene almost outdid Creon’s central battle with Antigone. Grocock too has grown in thespian stature since his last appearance, as Teucer in Ajax, when he also impressed.

Together these young, convincing performers turned Antigone into the vast moral tussle that it is, amounting to onstage open warfare. The play needs budding talents like these to bring this searing story so vividly alive. They did so unflinchingly, and with a great deal of verve and nous, which as they will know, means a lot of intelligence.

Roderic Dunnett 

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