Antigone: Interview with the writer, Hollie McNish

A stand-up in the kitchen beforehand, a riotous prologue delivering the low down on a dysfunctional family, name checks for Snow White and Rapunzel and a soundtrack featuring Alicia Keys and Cardi B?

It may not be the serious and sometimes reverential vision we in the modern world have of Greek tragedy, but the ancient Greeks would certainly have recognised the elements that combine in Hollie McNish’s vibrant newadaptation of Antigone – the third part of Sophocles’ ‘Theban’ trilogy.

And the Ted Hughes Award-winning poet admits she would have loved the experience of Ancient Greek theatre – if, as a woman, she had been allowed to attend that is.

It was Alex who approached Hollie with the idea of reworking the play having previously asked her to become the first poet-in-residence when Storyhouse opened its doors four years ago, her verse then filling the walls inside the building.

“I’d been looking for an opportunity to commission her to write a dramatic piece,” he explains. “I’d seen the reaction to her poetry in Storyhouse, with people openly crying.”

Storyhouse’s ethos also appears to have appealed to Hollie.

Before she became a full-time poet, the 38-year-old worked in an urban design charity looking at making public spaces more equitable.

She says: “Storyhouse is just incredible. The fact they’ve got the city library in with the theatre, in with the cinema, and that people from all walks of life mix so well – I think it’s just the best design of a theatre and library that I’ve ever seen, and I really like it.

“And as someone who finds theatre and theatres quite intimidating, the idea of kids that maybe wouldn’t get taken to the theatre growing up and seeing it as normal is great.”

Still, she reveals that with only one previous production – as co-writer on women’s football drama Offside– under her belt, and with what she herself admits is a somewhat mixed record as an audience member, she took some persuading to agree to tackle Sophocles’ ancient text.

It was when she started researching the background to Greek theatre, learning that these great tragedies sat within the context of a wider festival of wine, comedy, feasting and conversation, that she had a lightbulb moment.

“I couldn’t believe just how raucous it was,” she explains. “It was an epiphany. It just seemed to be so different to the experience I had of being forced into a red velvet pinafore in order to look smart enough to go to the theatre, and ‘be quiet and don’t drink your carton of juice too loudly’.”

Her personal experience of childhood trips in starchy velvet pinafore to nodding off in the comfortable darkness of an auditorium to an unfortunate fit of the giggles during a ballet have combined with her revelation over contemporaneous productions of Sophocles’ work to inform her decisions on this production.

While the plot and setting remain the same – Antigone courageously defies the orders of her brutal uncle Creon to give her dead brother Polynices a proper burial – Hollie has used distinctly different imagery to tell the story in a way that is fresh and accessible for Chester audiences, and, in particular, for young theatregoers.

Nature is at the heart of the adaptation, and she’s taken as her touchstone climate activists like Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate – young women who have fought to have their voices and opinions heard in an adult, and often still male-dominated, world.

As in Sophocles’ original, there’s plenty of food for thought in Antigone – something to chew over in the bar afterwards or in the car on the way home, just as Greek audiences would have debated in 440BC.

Hollie herself says she hopes it will make people think about society and their place in it, and how easily we can all become any of these characters, both good and bad.

She adds: “I’d also like the audience to see the beauty of the language. I’ve worked really hard on that. From what I’ve read in different translations, Sophocles’ language was often very beautiful; I hope the poetry is still there and people go away having enjoyed that as well.”