Brighton Fringe 2015
S P O I L E R A L E R T
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I Am Not Antigone. What a strange title.
Weird. Either it’s some kind of take on Sophocles’ great play about Antigone, the Theban princess wanting to do the right thing for her dead brother – or it’s not. And if it’s not about Antigone, then why does it have this title?, and what is the show about?
In fact, there are two interwoven strands of running through the play, and it resonates with the echoes of European conflicts stretching back decades, if not centuries – all of which make it one of the most interesting and thought-provoking productions I’ve seen for a long time.
It was obvious from the moment we sat down in The Basement that this wasn’t going to be a traditional Greek Tragedy. The all-black performance area had three silver columns down the left hand side, right to the back wall, which was almost filled by a video projection screen. At the right of the area was a table, holding a laptop and a mobile phone. Abstract stars and flashes filled the screen, while a couple were dancing, facing the audience, to the heavy beat of disco music. Later on, the screen would carry photographs giving a scene’s location, or streams of digital data – long columns of green zeros and ones.
Vivien von Abendorff explained that she was going to play Antigone (a very modern Antigone with shoulder-length hair, wearing a short black leather dress with silver sleeves), and would also play her sister Ismene. She introduced her companion as her ‘assistant’, but said that he would also play Creon (her uncle, the king of Thebes) and Haemon (her fiancé). As Antigone, she gave us a thumbnail sketch of the situation, explaining that there had been a civil war between her brothers, the princes Eteocles and Polyneices, who had both been killed, and that now King Creon was about to bury Eteocles with full honours, while denying burial to Polyneices.
Kalki Aporos is slightly taller than von Abendorff, with long hair tied into a top-knot. He wore running shorts and a black vest, topped off with a black plastic breastplate. As Antigone talked he gave us an impression of the war, miming sword thrusts and parries, silhouetted in vivid red backlight.
Antigone’s fired up with indignation – Vivien von Abendorff compared her to Joan of Arc, to Emmeline Pankhurst, to Rosa Parks – sitting on that whites-only bus seat down in Alabama. "She is a personification of our struggle for what’s right and true".
What’s ‘right’ is that her brother Polyneices should be given due honour, so she intends to make a protest at next day’s funeral for Eteocles. Her sister Ismene won’t help – there’s a wonderful iPhone conversation with her as the big screen shows us a grossly distorted image of Ismene on her phone – it’s actually von Abendorff playing the other woman, of course. Ismene just wants a quiet life – “He‘s dead. The war is over. He’s gone. It’s pointless being angry, now is the time to show the other side, the soft side". All she’s concerned about is – "What are you going to wear?".
Her fiancé Haemon won’t help either, so Antigone prepares her action alone. She changes into black leather trousers, leaving her top bare, and paints a solid black circle on each of her breasts. A paradox – she’s simultaneously hiding her breasts and covering the nipples, while drawing the eye irresistibly to them. Across her belly she prints FUCK CREON in large black letters (no easy task working upside down in half light – von Abendorff would make a good graffiti artist . . ). It’s going to look amazing in front of the TV cameras at Eteocles’ funeral.
Creon, of course, is horrified. By now Kalki Aporos had changed into a black suit, with a white shirt and red tie, and tied his hair back into a pony-tail to become the King. The last thing he wants is public protest, and warns Antigone that any dissent – even from a member of his own family – will result in imprisonment, with all the brutality and possible rape that that will entail.
In Sophocles’ original, Antigone stands for a moral position – doing what is right for her dead brother – while Creon stands for the maintenance of order and stability within the State. Antigone’s position is that ‘the laws of the Gods are more important than the laws of mere kings’ – and she dies for this belief.
Aporos and von Abendorff are both very accomplished actors – well able to produce the angry outbursts of indignation and emotion that the play demands. In this production, a modern-day Creon starts by dismissing his niece as a hysterical teenager. "You’re only nineteen – grow up a bit. Why do you have to protest? Why do young people always have to protest?". She keeps screaming at him – "Bury my brother! … Bury both my brothers!" – until finally he loses patience and decides to tell her the truth.
The truth – that in politics there are a lot of ‘grey’ areas. That life isn’t as simple as it looks on the surface. "Your brothers were both the same – they’re both guilty. Equal". Antigone went very quiet as he continued – "You know they raped women. They killed children, women, the elderly. They shot innocent men, they fired rockets, grenades, they mined and bombed in every city. But worst – BOTH your brothers turned ordinary men into killers".
Creon tells her that they couldn’t find the body of either of her brothers. That Eteocles’ coffin they will bury next day will in fact be empty. "One will be given the status of a hero, a winner – and the other will be a loser. That’s to show our country that war doesn’t pay. The world needs someone to blame". Polyneices is being made into a scapegoat, to carry away the sins of the whole country.
Maybe Ismene was right all along.
Creon is creating a myth, for the stability of his country – like the reconciliation processes that have gone on in South Africa and Northern Ireland and (to an extent) in Spain after civil wars. I was struck that this production is done in conjunction with a Serbian company – the National Theatre Sterija, from Vršac, north-east of Belgrade.
A play about civil war, with the killing of innocents and the raping of women, carries terrible echoes of the 1990s wars following the break-up of Yugoslavia – when Serbs, Croats and Bosnians embarked on an orgy of bloodshed and ‘ethnic cleansing’ as they tried to redefine the borders and religious make-up of their countries.
These things have a long and complicated history. Remember that a century ago it was a Serb, Gavrilo Princip, (trying to free his country from Austro-Hungarian domination) who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, setting in motion the First World War.
Perhaps Ismene WAS right. Early on, the clever script has Antigone refer to a much older religion – "Thank Zeus, the war is over now. How it started, why they fought – everyone has a different opinion . . ."
Perhaps Creon was right, too. Stability is the best condition for any State. But if we have corrupt or brutal rulers, how do we set about replacing them? Running through the play was a critique of Facebook culture, with its ‘Likes’ and ‘Shares’. This sat a little uneasily with the main ‘Antigone’ theme of the piece, but it was fascinating in itself and made full use of the video screen and iPhones.
Vivien von Abendorff referred to the ‘Arab Spring’ in the Middle East, and how it has been called ‘The Facebook Revolution’. "But did it change anything?, for the better or for the worse, or do I just need to be more patient?". Thousands and thousands of people connected through Facebook and Twitter, but the result (so far) in Egypt has been the replacement of one Dictator by another Dictator, and in Libya by the replacement of a brutal Dictator by brutal Anarchy.
Facebook gives us the illusion of being connected – of being politically engaged –
"I did what I could. I liked the page. I shared the post. I’ve done that – Fuck it!".
But it’s addictive. Von Abendorff told us that Internet activity – clicking, sharing, updating, seeing a response to a post – all release dopamine, a reward hormone, giving us the illusion that we’re powerful, in control, changing the world.
But we never actually leave our room.
Two and a half thousand years ago, Sophocles wrote ‘Antigone’ as a clear and simple choice between the greater – State – good, and the individual – Moral – good. ‘I Am Not Antigone’ brings the play up to date, showing us how the ‘grey areas’ of life are more complicated than we imagined – and how difficult it is to take a stand.
A powerful play, with a thoughtful message. A play that asked questions and offered no simplistic answers. A play looking out towards Eastern Europe, and back through the decades, put on with Serbian collaboration. It well deserved the thunderous applause it received at the end. It reminded me of what a festival like Brighton Fringe is FOR.