Brighton Fringe 2018
Joanna Lucas - Portrait Productions
Festival: Brighton Fringe
What is it about ‘Antigone’ that speaks so powerfully to us today?
It must be something in the zeitgeist – I’ve seen four Antigones in the last year alone.
‘Antigone’ always reminds me of a phrase from E M Forster – “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”. A few Antigones ago I looked up Forster and discovered that he was very interested in the Oedipus legend and that in one of his short stories, ‘The road from Colonus’ , a character even nicknames his daughter Antigone. As Antigone tells us in this production – Colonus was where Oedipus went into exile from Thebes, and I am struck that this play probably influenced Forster’s morality and his pacifist politics.
In Antigone’s case it’s a member of her family, not her friend, that she doesn’t want to betray. She’s performed the necessary funeral rites for her dead brother Polynices, against the orders of the King of Thebes, and now she’s paying the price. When we meet her she’s just been pushed into a dark cave, and left to starve to death.
It’s a very simple set at Sweet Dukebox, just a bare black stage with a large chest sitting near the centre. Joanna Lucas seems to stumble onto the stage – she’s obviously been flung into the cave – and as she takes stock of her surroundings she begins to tell us the story of how she comes to be there.
Joanna Lucas as Antigone is dressed in a long white dress, high-waisted, with golden sandals occasionally glimpsed underneath. Lucas the actor also turns out to be a consummate storyteller – she held us gripped by her narrative for close to an hour. It’s actually Michael McEvoy’s script, but Lucas made the story very much her own.
And what a story! King Creon of Thebes is Antigone’s actual uncle, not just her ruler, and she’s a royal princess. Creon’s taken on the monarchy after her father King Oedipus went into exile, and Oedipus’s two sons, the princes Eteocles and Polynices, killed each other in a fratricidal war for control of the city. In the aftermath of that war, Creon has given Eteocles a sumptuous funeral, with full honours, but decreed that Polynices’ body be left unburied, to rot outside the city and be eaten as carrion. Disobeying the decree would be punishable by death.
That sounds heartless even to us today, but for the Greeks it was devastating. Without the necessary rites performed on their body, that person’s soul could not pass into the Underworld. It would linger forever in limbo – an appalling fate, and a terrible vengeance.
So Antigone did what she felt had to be done. She told us how she’d tried to get her sister Ismene to help, but that the woman lacked courage, and so finally she’s acted all alone. Here, in the cave, she showed us how she’d taken the honey, the water and the olive branch – she took the items out of the chest – and gathered dust to cover the rotting corpse. This was when the actor’s real talent became apparent. Lucas didn’t simply tell the story, she acted out the various roles as she narrated them, moving on her knees gathering dust, then hiding behind a rock (the chest) when soldiers came to guard the body.
When they discover what she’s done, the guards argue over who will be the one to face the wrath when he gives Creon the news. Lucas – as Antigone telling us the story – managed to give us various members of the squad, turning this way and that and altering her voice as the discussion raged. She constantly slipped back seamlessly into her identity as the princess, too, giving us things from her own point of view. At times in the performance she talked to us close-up in the first few rows, quite intimate. At other moments she raised her head, and her voice, and she was addressing Creon and a big crowd in some large assembly at the royal palace, at her trial for treason.
Never still – continually altering her posture or her facial expression to convey the essence of something that was happening in her tale. But it was her eyes that truly held us, always shifting their gaze. Big eyes, staring intensely at each of us in turn, bright with highlights from the show’s simple, direct lighting. Mesmerising. Joanna Lucas is a very good actor, and this was a very powerful performance.
Antigone is sometimes interpreted as a play about how much The State should be able to demand of its citizens. About whether the duty of obedience to a higher morality – or to The Gods – should override the duty of obedience to The Ruler. It’s an argument we’ve heard increasingly over the past decade, with governments increasingly regarding individual citizens as either ‘Us’ or ‘Them’. In this Manichean world view – “You’re either with us or against us”. Maybe that’s why ‘Antigone’ is so much in demand these days.
Michael McEvoy’s script focuses much more on the family relationships. Antigone tells us that Creon supported Eteocles against his brother, forcing Polynices to leave the city as an exile, and later return with an army to reclaim his inheritance. She implies that Creon manipulated the brothers into war, knowing (from an oracle) that they would both die, in order to achieve the monarchy himself.
And this ‘Antigone’ goes further back into the family’s history. Antigone tells us of her father, Oedipus, and how he tried to escape a prophesy by leaving his home as an exile. How he couldn’t avoid his fate – nobody ever can – and eventually came to Thebes. Setting in train the horrors that followed.
If you don’t know the Oedipus legend – go and see ‘Antigone Alone’. It’s a long and complicated story, very well explained.
If you do know the story, and your Greek mythology is up to speed – then especially go and see ‘Antigone Alone’, as it’s a masterful retelling, in an unforgettable performance.