My friend has two sisters and I only have a brother. Familial practices, allegiances and secrets lie at the dichotomous heart of Theatre Excentrique’s ANTIGONE. A modern audience does not bear the weight of Antigone’s terrible ancestral turmoil but this sparse, drum punctuated production encourages each responder to bring their own sibling background to the interpretation.
On the surface, Antigone appears to be driven by a spiritual imperative to ease the wandered suffering of her dead brother’s soul but politics and power are encountered first in the domestic setting. My friend and I saw different shows. Both engaging, then absorbing, then intriguing: but different. We never really recover from family.
Ancient Thebes. Oedipus has died and his sons, Etocles and Polynices are to share the throne year alternately.. When time comes Etocles refuses to give up power and the brothers fight to the death. Uncle to them both, Creon takes the throne to stabilise the situation. He buries Etocles with full honours and leaves Polynices to rot in the sun. Creon’s edict? Death awaits anyone who buries him.
Antigone is the younger sister, just 20, and she is defiant and unyielding. After unsuccessfully trying to involve her sister, Ismene, she buries Polynices under cover of darkness. When Creon refuses to respond and hides the event, having the guards remove the dirt, she forces his hand by digging the grave with her own hands. This means her death and that she will never marry Haemon, Creon’s son and her fiancé. She believes she is of her tribe and that her nature and destiny is to say ‘No’.
Adapted from the Ancient Greek tragedy by Sophocles, Jean Anouilh’s ANTIGONE is canonical in his native France and is most often seen as an incitement of the Vichy Government who collaborated with the Nazi occupation. There are Academic scholars and theatre thinkers who believe that the play’s considerable sympathy for Creon’s belief in the need for powerful leadership to stabilise society is more in keeping with Nazi philosophy. This production allows for both interpretations.
With the choice of a transverse stage, lengthways, audience facing each other across the narrow acting space, Director Anna Jahjah has encapsulated the divide of this play. Her production concept puts the words centre stage. The text is what is important here. The use of 2 large, low, circular rolling rostra is taken directly from the text. Being at the wheel and steering the ship is Creon’s stated reason for assuming authority. There is even a subtly placed book of schooners on the floor of his study. When the guards propel and spin these set pieces slowly so that the audience has no choice but to follow, the analogy is clear.
The text is also the basis for the colour palette; the shocking climax happens off stage but is reported (in this translation by Kris Shalvey and Anna Jarjah) as being about the reds and greens of Antigone’s apparel. Simple and stripped back the production may be but there is detail to be assimilated. The red band around Antigone’s wrist, the sweet green box on Creon’s desk, the vase of red blooms on the Nurse’s table even the red epaulets on the khaki green uniforms of the Guards and Page.
The performance has a speed too which supports the audience’s intellectual decision making. The acting only occasionally hits a purposeful emotive note. Ellen Williams has terrific diction given how rapidly she delivers Antigone’s lines. She is surly and hidden yet present and mesmerising. When she reaches the point of choice, there is little self-pity in the doubt and room in the emotion for a dissenting inner voice. Both for the character and the viewer.
As Creon, Neil Modra, is somewhat slower but not portentous or prescriptive. His considerable storytelling skills carry the audience through those very long speeches both with belief and the beauty of a lyrical voice in a confined space. Kate Fraser’s interpretation of Ismene, the beautiful but vacillating sister, allows a reading of the protectiveness of an older sister for a younger. When she tells Antigone that she is just a little girl, the words pass quickly but the undercurrent hit home to my sistered companion.
Speaking the epithets and pinpoints of the chorus dialogue in the original French, are students from Blacktown Girls High School and, if a little unfocused after a long week, their interjections exude an understanding of their place in the drama. The front student of this chorus is a good actor in the making and hopefully she will continue to be involved the theatre.
The rest of what was originally the chorus’ narrative and foreshadowing fall to Kirsty Jordan. Her performance really gives the audience the context in which to absorb the tragedy. It’s a complex play and the family and political dynamics are not easily understood at first interaction but Jordan cleverly uses the speed of the delivery and her movement around the space to guide us through. She also plays the Nurse and fusses and frets without ever really convincing us of her relationship with Antigone.
This is the one thing I longed for more of in this production. The relationships. The actors come very close to the front rows and like a close-up in a film, we focus on their face and this can narrow our view. The constant movement and speed of delivery can work against an audience seeing the wide shot. When they do stop, Antigone snuggles into Haemon’s seated body or settles at Nanny’s feet, the grouping writes relationships for us.
That aside, I really enjoyed this interpretation of a classic work. In her program Director’s Notes, Anna Jahjah discusses her search to find what Antigone says ‘No’ to. She believes she has found her own response but that everyone has to find their own answers. I appreciated not being handed any easy solutions to what Antigone chooses and is motivated by. Like Jahjah I think I might know now. And I’d bet, so does my friend.
ANTIGONE continues at PACT, Erskineville until May 2nd.
For more about Antigone by Jean Anouith, visit http://www.theatrexcentrique.com/antigone-by-jean-anouilh/