The incoming home secretary is unlikely to have diary space for a theatre trip this week, but some of her predecessors with more time on their hands may find Inua Ellams’ new adaptation of Antigone thought-provoking.
His updated and heavily rewritten version of Sophocles’ play, previewing at the Regent’s Park theatre in London, has transformed King Creon into a hardline home secretary whose introduction of tough anti-terror measures helps him to be elected as prime minister.
A duel between Antigone’s brothers becomes a shootout between a Metropolitan police officer, Eteocles, and his radicalised sibling, Polyneices, during an apparent terror attack on London involving vehicles ploughing into pedestrians.
Creon, a British Muslim politician, dumps his dead nephew, Polyneices, in an immigration detention centre, posthumously strips him of his British citizenship and prohibits his niece, Antigone, from organising a burial.
The action strays far from Sophocles’ Thebes, but the adaptation remains a Greek tragedy with many messages for Conservative home secretaries.
Ellam’s version of Antigone focuses on the pressures faced by a British Asian politician struggling to find a place for himself within the Conservative party. Photograph: Helen Murray
Sajid Javid was in the post when Ellams, a British-Nigerian poet and playwright, began thinking about the production. There are strong echoes of the government’s treatment of Shamima Begum, the teenager made stateless when Javid cancelled her British citizenship after she travelled to Syria and joined Islamic State.
The play focuses on the pressures faced by a British Asian politician struggling to find a place for himself within the Conservative party, wrestling with the electorate’s perceived Islamophobia and becoming increasingly authoritarian to fit in.
“He’s a figure who strips away aspects of his identity in order to speak to the British electorate, to become what he thinks makes an appealing politician,” said Ellams.
“We learn that he has sacrificed way too much of himself in order to gain power. I hope audiences learn more about our society, about what happens when politics is pushed to such extremes, and think about who are the victims of political extremes.”
There are also nods to stop and search policies, the Prevent programme and police surveillance of young Muslim men. Antigone is a youth leader whose club has closed due to government funding cuts. An election takes place during a period of economic uncertainty, when voters are confronting the rising cost of living.
Ellams’ own distressing encounters with Home Office policies sharpened his portrayal of an environment where politicians feel it is electorally advantageous to ramp up a hostile rhetoric.
As he prepared for the opening of his 2019 adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the National Theatre, Ellams was dealing with the fallout from a Home Office decision to refuse his naturalisation application. Ellams arrived in London in 1996 as a 12-year-old and received British citizenship only a few months ago.
“I’ve survived quite a few home secretaries,” he says. “Is anger the right word? One can’t be angry for 26 years. My anger burned up long ago. It’s more frustration, a feeling of solidarity with other immigrants who are victims of an office that is not fit for purpose.”
Ellams arrived in London in 1996 as a 12-year-old but only received British citizenship a few months ago. Photograph: David Parry/PA
During the final stages of his protracted difficulties with the Home Office, Ellams had already been elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and received critical acclaim for his 2017 play Barber Shop Chronicles, and two of his plays were options on the GCSE syllabus.
“There was a cognitive dissonance. None of this meant anything. I felt like just another number on a file somewhere in the system, being processed by overworked civil servants with quotas to fill, people who aren’t given the space to be human.”
Ellams is not particularly moved by the diversity of Liz Truss’s cabinet, appointed during this week’s rehearsals. “Maybe on some level I’m happy that these are people in power because it means that young children of colour broaden their aspirations and see these are the roles they can play in society,” he says, but he is withholding judgment until their plans are revealed.
“Is there any hope that their policies might make life easier for refugees or immigrants to be accepted? With these new politicians, I don’t really care what they look like – I want to see their characters, their policies,” says Ellams. “It reminds me of the famous quote by Martin Luther King: ‘People should not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.’”