Antigone Redux

(or why Lulu Raczka is the essential playwright for young generations)

by Pip Williams

STEPH: What was even the moral?

BELL: Never go outside.

                        -Lulu Raczka, A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar)

I currently live on a fairly noisy street in north London. It’s just off a main road, so often we get a lot of people coming off the main road to do nefarious things in private, or to have conversations not meant for main roads; arguments, breakups, the odd drug deal. The noise of these interactions floats up to our first-floor window, and mostly it’s fine, but occasionally the noises are a bit more distressing- the shouts take a sharper tone; nastier words, disconnected, become audible; there’s the sound of running, car alarms, bottles smashing. And more often than not, by the time we’ve decided maybe we should just have a peek out of the window and check it’s all ok, the noise has stopped and the street’s empty again.  So we shut the curtains and carry on with whatever it is we were doing before, one ear straining for the noises of the outside world.

The plays of Lulu Raczka happen in the space behind the curtains; they are plays of dread and angst, straining to make sense of a series of noises, some good, mostly bad, that drift from a dark and troubled outside. The characters listen behind the curtains, reconstructing the stories of the screams and shouts beyond.  But they are also an honest and rigorous account of how we map stories onto a world that frightens us; the power of storytelling and narrative to make sense of fear and panic, and, crucially, how we confront that in a theatrical space. Though her plays are dark, there is a real formal joy in them as she gleefully whips away any preconceptions we might have of the theatrical space, of what we see, what the actors do, and how we, the audience, respond to any of it. As she says in the stage directions of her first play Nothing, “You are an audience member until you start speaking.”

The other week I went to see her remarkable adaptation of Antigone (which just finished at the New Diorama, in a production by her company Holy What), and it seemed to me to encapsulate all that’s excellent about her as a writer.  For a start, she’s a writer of subtractions – in previous plays she’s removed structural order, rules and even light. In her Antigone, she reduces Sophocles’ massive moral drama down to a tight two-hander between Antigone and her sister Ismene. Alone in their massive house, the sisters dance, drink and talk about sex as they wait for their brothers to return from an endless war.

So when Antigone flouts the law of her uncle Creon and buries her dead brother (the punishment for which is gruesome death), the resulting dramatic conflict is not, as in the original, between Antigone and Creon – an expansive dialogue about the pitfalls of moral absolutism and the pressures of power – but between Antigone and Ismene – a far more relatable and humane conflict between two sisters faced with an unthinkable family rupture.

All this has the effect of streamlining and clarifying the play’s moralistic argument into a more intimate, familial one. In Raczka’s rendering, Antigone is less an ethical archetype than a teenager desperately struggling with her sense of right and wrong. “It’s like there’s this thing,” she says to Ismene, “That is more important than everything/…It’s about knowing what it is that is right/And that’s what I’ve had to do/I guess/I’ve grown up”.

“What,” Ismene simply responds, and what comes to mind isn’t Judith Butler or Kant but schoolkids arguing on buses, or older siblings saying “because I’m bigger than you”. The backbone of Antigone’s argument, her mantra, is “I really don’t care what people think”, and again I remember overwhelmingly the fury, the righteousness with which I clung to my teenage convictions, the passion of my beliefs and the steadfastness of my resolve.

All of which might serve to water the play down a bit, to trivialise its central arguments, to reduce the tragedy to a GCSE drama of bickering teens, but Raczka’s version does exactly the opposite – at the end of the day, it’s very much a play about a teenager who dies; because of her belief in an absolute good, and because of her unconditional loyalty to her family. And this tragedy is all the more poignant for the carefully and entertainingly drawn sisterly nattering, showing how families are affected by political game-playing and war; at the end, Ismene, left alone onstage, has a long, long monologue describing the years and empty years of grief and painful, lonely life without her sister. At the end, what Ismene cannot bring herself to understand is not why Antigone would die for her beliefs, but why she’d leave her sister to live without her.

The play also demonstrates Raczka’s fascination and deftness with the act of storytelling; the sisters spend all their time telling each other stories about their lives together, describing imaginary nights out, losing their virginities and, ultimately, how Antigone will say goodbye to the people she loves in a sort of extended verbal game. As in most of Raczka’s work, there’s very little action, per se, and it’s a text light on stage directions, but instead the characters describe to each other what they will or would do, building a future (or indeed a present) in an act of pure theatrical storytelling. Raczka (and her superb director Ali Pidsley) dispenses with changes of set or extra characters; the audience just has to trust that when Antigone and Ismene tell us they’re going to a bar, it isn’t just another game, another riff.  This seems particularly fitting for a text like Antigone, which has always been about the power of words – speech-acts, as my university lecturers used to be fond of discussing (when an utterance can be considered an action, e.g. when a priest pronounces a couple man and wife). The dramatic tension comes, in part, because Creon has said that anyone who buries Polynices (Antigone’s dead, disgraced brother) must be executed, and so that rule has to be extended to everyone, even his niece.  And because Antigone refuses to say sorry, refuses to back down verbally, she has to die; “So I have to be a grown up and that means/…when you say something/And you believe something/You have to stand up for it”.  It was always a play about how simply saying things brings them into reality, a reality that is often scary and always fatal.  But the tragedy of Raczka’s adaptation is that, while Antigone and Ismene control the stories they tell each other, control the rules of the word games they play, can swap in and out of characters to try and convince each other, reality and the law of the story itself always comes crashing in; going into a version of Antigone, we know that Antigone always has to die. Ultimately the stories are defiantly useless in the face of human cruelty and law. We know that and Antigone knows that. Ismene’s closing speech spirals on and on, just words, just a story stretching to cover a gaping void.

It’s familiar and fruitful territory for Raczka; her plays are all extended discussions not only on how we use stories and the physical speech-act of storytelling to cope with fear, but also of how useful those stories actually are, against a cruel and un-creative world.

Speaking to her frequent collaborator Euan Kitson, he says that “her work is about people just talking, but so often not listening… the characters propensity to self-delude, self-curate, self-edit”. Formally, she traps us in an environment where we have no choice but to listen, to trust the characters in front of us and the stories they’re telling- and she delights equally in playing with that trust and that belief, questioning our very roles as audience members.

Her first two plays, Nothing and Some People Talk About Violence (both developed with theatre company Barrel Organ) address the real issue of communicating across the performer/audience divide, and, to this end, dispense with many of the rules we’ve come to expect from a theatre show.  Nothing takes the form of a series of monologues that can be performed in any order, in any location and “is not finished”. A series of nameless characters (called only things like “Commuter” or “Porn Girl”) tell a series of tales of modern alienation, loneliness and barely-suppressed violence; it’s a world of nightclubs (which seem to crop up a lot in Raczka’s work) and pornography, pointless jobs and night buses, with billboard celebrities leering over it all like the eyes of T.J Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby.

Even in the act of telling, the stories seem to flicker and distort uncertainly; a character starts talking about childhood abuse, falters and says “It’s not a thing to be described in words…the actual act of describing it just seems fucking impossible”. They get a bit further before saying “Fucking hell this is bull-shit isn’t it?” … Both of which are really alarming admissions within a theatrical experience; if the audience can’t even get a foothold on the reality of the play, if the characters themselves don’t even believe in that reality, what can we do?

But there’s also a kind of joyous freedom in this uncertainty. To refer again to Raczka’s opening instructions to the performers, she releases them and us, the audience, from any responsibility to the performance as a coherent whole; “If there is a tone developing,” she tells us, “play against it… Respond to people’s actions – not to anyone’s story.”

The emphasis is not on a comfortable evening at the theatre, on a story we can piece together, but on the fundamental importance of telling, on the experience of sitting in a room and listening to people tell not only stories, but intensely personal stories about their lived experience as people. It is a play about the difficulty of connection and empathy in the modern world- at the end, a character says, “I have never been able to relate. This is not an experience I understand” – but its form is intensely empathetic, and relies on a room full of people creating a story together.

Her 2017 play A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar) is a really elegant maturation of this idea (it remains one of the most affecting evenings I’ve ever spent in a theatre); set in a vaguely dystopian future of mysterious disappearances and intermittent rolling blackouts, it’s a thriller with no action, a detective story for two voices. In it, the titular schoolgirl (Steph) comes to a bar asking about her friend, who’s disappeared in a recent blackout. She and the bar’s owner, Bell, then construct a narrative together in which they confront a series of villains and try to piece together where Steph’s friend might be.  Like Antigone and Ismene, they tell each other a story about their lives, a story of torturing evil men and playing detectives, stretching an action-movie narrative over their very real fear and anxiety.

The vast majority of the play happens in total darkness, thrillingly depriving the audience again of any comforting foothold and making them focus entirely on the story, on the words the characters are saying. I remember thinking how awesomely powerful and consummately, beautifully theatrical it was to do that to an audience – being plunged into total darkness is profoundly disquieting, and it deceives you into thinking that something awful is always about to happen, that you’ll feel a hand on your shoulder or a breath in your ear, but of course this is the point; the aim is to create an atmosphere of dread and suspicion, much like the one the two leads live in. The rolling blackouts that punctuate the play and its world aren’t some supernatural, sci-fi phenomenon, and the creatures that thrive in that darkness aren’t anything we don’t already know; the fear the two girls feel is the same fear any woman living in a city feels at night, the constant threat of sudden violence or assault, of, in short, men, and the story they tell each other is pure theatrical defiance of that fear – “And it worked-“ Steph says at the end, “I wasn’t scared”.  The play ends with a question – “Help me?” – an entreaty and a call to action.  Fundamentally, Raczka as a writer knows that stories are not enough – that we draw strength from narrative but talking will only get us so far.

That’s part of the reason I think she’s such a powerfully relevant playwright in 2020 – she is questioning constantly the use of talking and of stories, questioning how we make theatre into a truly dialogic form.  She’s younger than a certain generation of “young writers” coming up through British theatre currently (Alistair McDowell, Alice Birch, etc.), and so could, I suppose, be accurately called a millennial (useless and overused as that word is), and she actively engages with a world all too familiar to people of our generation; a world of doubt, a world ambushed by the internet and its endless content and dark corners, a world of nightclubs, pornography and suppressed violence and rage.

How then, she seems to ask, can we relate to each other? How can we help each other? How do we use theatre, stories, as a truly communicative art form? Can it ever be such?

We start by listening. We start by engaging.

“You are an audience member until you start speaking”

We stand up. We open the curtains. And we start speaking.