Brighton Fringe 2020
We’d torn down the police ‘no-entry’ tapes, as we’d been urged to do by the young woman, who also gave us placards to carry, and we’d shuffled down the path into the garden. A beautifully-kept garden, about twenty metres across, with shrubs and trees surrounding a central lawn on which we stood. Spotlights lifted small areas out of the evening darkness and gave it the appearance of some sort of grotto.
Now, as we looked up towards the house, a man on a balcony was making a speech to us for the TV news. He’s the Prime Minister, and he was announcing new legal measures against what he called ‘climate change terrorists’ whose activities are threatening the ‘prosperity, growth and jobs’ that the country desperately needs. Mark Katz very much looked the successful politician, in a good suit, and he perfectly managed that vocal tone – half honeyed, half threatening – that we’ve become so used to from our leaders.
But the young activist who’d led us in, Thena, turns out to be his niece; so there was a bitter conflict of values as she admitted to flouting his new law – “It’s not a just law, it’s not the law of Nature”. Her uncle retorted that she didn’t understand the issues – “You’re just a child; you’re a girl.” Power, patriarchy and misogyny: not an attractive combination, and so by now the environmental debate had also become a family struggle. Leda Douglas gave us the passion of the committed activist in her exchanges with her uncle, but she was also able to demonstrate the warmth of the bond she enjoyed with her aunt.
‘Savage Beauty’ is a very immersive production – social distancing meant that we weren’t packed tight, and allowed Thena, and later her aunt Tessa as well, to move around and interact with individual audience members. Edmund Sutton’s clever lighting and Matt Eaton’s sound made us feel present at a real press conference, with photographers’ flashes and the whirr of camera shutters. The spotlights I mentioned earlier lit different areas of the garden in turn, and also the house interior, keeping us on our toes as we turned this way and that to follow the action as it moved from setting to setting.
A lot of the power of ancient Greek myths, and the plays based on them, comes from the fact that the themes they deal with are universal and timeless. Love, hate, ambition, revenge and the inexorable working out of Fate are as relevant today as they were two and a half thousand years ago. And they can withstand – indeed almost demand – being repackaged, retold, in many different settings.
‘Antigone’ is a perfect example – an individual doing what they consider to be ‘the right thing’ against the rules and prohibitions of the State. In Sophocles’ play, Antigone suffers death at the hands of her uncle King Creon, in order to perform the funeral rites that her dead brother needs to enter the Underworld. She tells the King that there are greater laws than his earthly decrees – the eternal Laws of the Gods.
I’ve seen a number of ‘Antigone’s over the years – three of the best, all different reinterpretations, from Actors of Dionysus. ‘She Denied Nothing’ took place in a military hospital in a twentieth-century war zone; ‘Antigone’ was set in a dystopian future where people’s essences, their ‘souls’, were stored on computer chips; and now ‘Savage Beauty’, which deals with the climate emergency and activist groups like Extinction Rebellion.
With ‘Savage Beauty’, AoD’s Director Tamsin Shasha, who also wrote the piece, has given us a cut-down version of ‘Antigone’. A very relevant version, perfectly suited to examining the role of citizens’ protest in a time of increasingly authoritarian governments worldwide. It’s promoted as ‘age 7+’, and that seems about right, aiming it at young people but with enough substance to engage us adults too. None of the complicated extended families of Sophocles’ play; just a principled, passionate young woman, and the different trajectories of the lives of her uncle and aunt.
So the basic environmental message is there – “the icecaps are melting six times faster than we thought” … “If a house is on fire, it’s not a crime to break the windows to save the people inside”. But there’s also a more subtle story: of the brother and sister who grew apart; he to play the political system successfully enough to become Prime Minister, she to abandon her scientific career in botany in disgust at the wrong-headed policies of ‘economic growth’. Tessa dropped out, and now she cultivates her garden, and educates her niece in the uses of herbs.
Sound plays a hugely important part in this production. Juliet Russell was almost hidden in a small tent in one corner, but her singing and rhythmic playing created a haunting envelope of sound that filled the garden (and the street outside, of which more later). It thundered out over an unforgettable section where Tamsin Shasha as Tessa stunned us with her trademark performance suspended from silks, twisting and writhing as she tried desperately to convince her brother that his life had taken the wrong path. All in front of a powerful video projection of Nature, full-on in all its power, glory and savagery.
And on several occasions, dropped in so quietly that we had to listen carefully; the youthful voices of a boy and girl at play – presumably a memory of the uncle and aunt as children – years before they grew older and their paths diverged. Such a subtle evocation of the passage of time.
It ends badly, of course – ‘Antigone’ always does.
One of the joys of live theatre is that every performance is different. We’d gone to see a play about resistance to the power of The State, written with reference to climate change. As the evening ended, we were spattered by the first drops of rain that heralded Storm Alex, the latest storm to hit the country (can we really have gone through the whole alphabet so quickly?) Then in the final scene, the garden was suddenly invaded by a number of uniformed officers in hi-viz. Was this part of the production? Were they a twenty-first century Chorus? But no – it seems the music, unexpected in the street, had caused one of the venue’s neighbours to call the police, who responded with two van-loads full.
It all ended happily, though. We left the venue almost completely dry, and at liberty, free of the threat of a night in the cells. As Sophocles knew well – if the Gods are with you, the experience becomes richer, and unforgettable.