Programme Note

Antigone is one of the most intriguing characters in Greek literature. Daughter of Oedipus, the former king of Thebes who blinded himself in despair after unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother, Antigone herself becomes the victim of a tragic fate.

Originally a figure from Greek mythology, Antigone is best known to us in her incarnation in Sophocles’ Theban Plays, Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, all dating from the 5th century BCE. In Sophocles’ version, Richard Claverhouse Jebb’s translation of which forms the basis of the current dramatic cantata, we first encounter Antigone in the final scene of Oedipus Tyrannus. Here she stands mute alongside her sister Ismene as Oedipus laments the terrible impact his crimes will have on his daughters, and is given over to the care of Creon, her uncle.

Antigone next appears at the opening of Oedipus at Colonus. Oedipus, now an old man, has arrived in the sacred village of Colonus, tended by Antigone. (There is a problem in the chronology here: Oedipus wanders Greece for many years between the end of Oedipus Tyrannus and the start of Oedipus at Colonus; Antigone, a child at the end of Oedipus Tyrannus, is still more or less a child in Oedipus at Colonus.) Elsewhere in Greece, all is not well. With Oedipus having been expelled from Thebes, his two sons Eteocles and Polyneices have been fighting over control of the city. Ismene brings news that Eteocles has seized the throne from Polyneices; Oedipus, angry with both of his sons for casting him out, curses them to die at each other’s hands. At the end of the play Oedipus dies, and Theseus, king of Athens, promises to return Antigone to Thebes, where she hopes to persuade Polyneices not to invade Thebes, and thereby to avert the curse that Oedipus has placed on her two brothers.

The action of Antigone takes place back in Thebes. Oedipus’ curse has been fulfilled, and Eteocles and Polyneices are dead by each other’s hands. Creon, now king of Thebes, has declared Eteocles a hero and Polyneices a traitor. Polyneices’ punishment is that his body should not receive a proper burial, but should lie unburied to be eaten by carrion animals. Antigone, unwilling to stand by as her brother’s body receives this harshest of treatments, attempts to persuade her sister Ismene to help her bury the body in defiance of Creon’s order. Ismene is unwilling to help, reminding Antigone in a now infamous speech that

we must remember, first, that we were born women, as who should not strive with men; next, that we are ruled of the stronger, so that we must obey in these things, and in things yet sorer. (Antigone lines 74-77, trans. Jebb)

Undeterred, Antigone carries out her mission alone, and Creon punishes her by ordering that she be buried alive in a cave. In this hopeless situation, she takes her own life. Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé, stabs himself on discovering the news. Upon learning of Haemon’s death, Creon’s wife Euridyce also takes her own life. Creon survives to reflect on the suffering that his callous decisions have wrought.

My adaptation of the story of Antigone takes the form of three tableaux, each lasting approximately 15 minutes. The cast is significantly reduced in comparison to Sophocles’ plays; the only characters that remain are Antigone, Theseus and Creon, as well as the three-part chorus. Part I corresponds to the end of Oedipus at Colonus, in which Antigone mourns the death of Oedipus, and enlists the help of Theseus in securing her return to Thebes. Part II corresponds to the opening scene of Sophocles’ Antigone. Having returned to Thebes, Antigone has acquired two extra sisters, and the chorus sing lines that Sophocles gives to Ismene; Antigone tries and fails to enlist her sisters’ help in burying the body of Polyneices. By the time Part III takes place, Antigone has already buried the body, and Creon has already sentenced her to be buried alive. Antigone ponders her fate, while Creon shows her no sympathy.

What are we to make of all of this? At the heart of the story of Antigone is the question of loyalty. Is loyalty to one’s city the highest imperative? This, at least initially, is what informs Creon’s actions, as he positions himself as steadfast defender of the city in a time of danger. Or is loyalty to one’s family and to divine law, as exemplified by Antigone, more important? Modern audiences are naturally horrified by Creon’s brutality and so side with Antigone. This reading of the play finds its most extreme form in Bertolt Brecht’s 1948 adaptation of Antigone, which draws close parallels between Creon and Adolf Hitler. More recently, the theme of civil disobedience – and siding with the underdog – has been prominent in many reimaginings of Antigone, notably in Kamila Shamsie’s 2017 novel Home Fire. The original play does not take sides in any straightforward sense, however, and while by the end of the play Creon has shown his true colours as a cruel bully, he is perhaps not the unambiguously ‘bad’ tyrant that we tend to see in him today.

It would be impossible for a contemporary audience not to read Antigone in the context of feminist thought. There is something undeniably heroic about the character of Antigone. She rebels against the patriarchal system exemplified by Ismene’s lines quoted above, is defiant in the face of extreme adversity, and ends up vindicated both by the gods and by the people of Thebes, who finally turn on Creon in protest against his cruel treatment of Polyneices and Antigone. It must be acknowledged, however, that she does also end up dead. Is Antigone, then, in my imagining of her, just the latest in a long line of female protagonists who are dealt the ultimate punishment for asserting their own agency? The cantata does, after all, in true nineteenth-century fashion, stop the action at Antigone’s death, paying no attention to the retribution that Creon subsequently suffers.

I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. I do, however, see the decision to give Antigone the dominant voice in the cantata as being an integral part of the project. My Antigone deviates quite sharply from Sophocles’ original play in its obsessive focus on the character of Antigone, relegating all the other characters to supporting actors in Antigone’s emotional journey. If Sophocles’ Antigone is about not only Antigone, but also Creon, Ismene, Haemon and all the rest, my adaptation is resolutely about one single character – Antigone. Meanwhile, if Sophocles’ Creon is not (just) a villain, my Creon only has the chance to display that darker side of his character in the small amount of music allotted to him. Ultimately, while Sophocles’ play is at its heart a political one, my cantata is essentially psychological.

‘effectively a long monologue on grief, going through various stages but always coming back to the idea of visiting her father’s tomb and then dying herself, an aim never achieved. It is this deliberate lack of resolution which makes the idea striking…It is a strange piece, and Nesbit has crafted music which is well-modulated and concentrated, this Antigone does not rail, she is considered and powerful. Nesbit’s writing is tonal, yet complex and showed a confident handling of a difficult subject; despite Antigone’s monomania, Nesbit brought a nice variety to the textures.’ (Robert Hugill,, 27th April 2018)

‘Nesbit’s traditional score conveys plenty of atmosphere, while his vocal writing works a treat.’ (George Hall, The Stage, 30th April 2018)

Year: 2018
Duration: 45′
Instrumentation: Mezzo-Soprano, Tenor, Chorus of 3 Female Voices, Piano



1st – 3rd October 2021
Rosie Middleton, Timothy Parker-Langston, Isabelle Haile, Natalka Pasicznyk, Meg Holch, Ben Smith, Matthew Hardy
Online release of full video of premiere performance on the East London Music Group YouTube channel

30th May 2021
Rosie Middleton, Timothy Parker-Langston, Isabelle Haile, Natalka Pasicznyk, Meg Holch, Ben Smith, Matthew Hardy
The Space, Isle of Dogs

27th April 2018
Angharad Lyddon, Anthony Flaum, Isabelle Haile, Beth Graham, Sapphire Armitage, Thomas Ang
Omnibus Theatre, Clapham (Part 1 only)

26th April 2018
Angharad Lyddon, Anthony Flaum, Isabelle Haile, Beth Graham, Sapphire Armitage, Thomas Ang
Omnibus Theatre, Clapham (Part 1 only)

20th February 2018
Angharad Lyddon, Anthony Flaum, Isabelle Haile, Beth Graham, Sapphire Armitage, Thomas Ang
The Octagon, Queen Mary University of London (Part 1 only)