FringeReview UK 2017
Sam Chittenden has chosen Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson’s 2012 version of Sophocles Antigone to direct at New Venture Theatre. The studio set – designed by Chittenden – is built in the round with one dais and everything red and black by Simon Glazier and George Walter. Hannah Clark and Jackie Jones dress Antigone in timeless loose garments and finally a white robe; men wear sharp suits. Lighting by Strat Mastoris focuses on a sifting down of sand from above, with Deej Johnson and Charly Sommers’ effects operated by Alex Ebbs. It’s followed by the video displays of Rima Stankute, also designed by Johnson and Sommers. Tim Metcalfe’s sound is spare.
It’s more than fitting Sam Chittenden has chosen Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson’s 2012 version of Sophocles’ Antigone to direct at New Venture Theatre. The two glove each other.
Given that this would always be a contemporary version, it’s surprising too. Anyone who’s read Carson’s poetry with its pushing verse to prose and drama extremes, and elaborate typography, might expect this version to fillet vernaculars through dramatic verse like a wire hook. Here, Carson’s a classicist first and poet afterwards. On this evidence it’s her own poetry being pushed about by Greek drama and prose, not the other way. This Antigone is respectful full of vocables and even ‘O’s: lean, tight, just as Greek verse should be. Carson’s built up one part (Eurydike) and glossed words like ‘unruly’ for ‘anarchic’ and yes it’s Carson-esque. But it’s Sophocles all right.
Chittenden and her cast revels in this spareness,reflected in her design of the studio set too: in the round with one dais and everything red and black (including naturally the scarlet seats) built by Simon Glazier and George Walter. Hannah Clark and Jackie Jones dress Antigone in timeless loose garments and finally a white robe; men wear sharp suits. The chorus loaf about during the interval reading the Times, FT or Sun.
But it’s two elements this production highlights that shows how keenly wrought this swift tragedy is. Lighting by Strat Mastoris – a keen classicist himself – focuses on a sifting down of sand from above as it pours iridescent though gloom: the illegal burial of an unquiet soul. This is the first of Deej Johnson and Charly Sommers’ effects. Two other red lights flickering blood seem at first unsubtle, but these fade. There’s been two similar attempts by director Yael Farber to irradiate grain and sand: in her own Salomé at the National, and more successfully in David Harrower’s Knives in Hens at the Donmar. Mastoris’ effect (operated by Alex Ebbs) is dramatically tighter, the staging of it by all concerned the most riveting opening to any Greek drama I’ve seen.
It’s followed much later by the video displays of Rima Stankute, also designed by Johnson and Sommers. Three characters’ fates imprisoned in stone are related projected on the floor. It’s effected for the most part quietly, and Tim Metcalfe’s sound is spare, relatively in keeping with the production. The feel of Greek folk songs belies the sources quoted from Gravity, The Who, Tom Waits.
We begin with two sisters wrangling over the illegality of burying the one brother who attacked his own city Thebes, killed by the defending older brother, both dying. One’s accorded state funeral, the other to be eaten where he lies. One sift of earth seals his release to the underworld. So Antigone’s hauled up before the new ruler Kreon, her uncle, inheritor of the vacant throne. Defiant, she’s condemned to death. The twist is his son Haimon her fiancé is not only distraught, but defiant. Antigone might be resigned, for the moment. What will she pull down with her?
Keziah Israel’s superb performance in Brighton Little’s Earthquakes in London means her Antigone’s been keenly anticipated. Her natural intensity suggests Greek drama is a place she’d inhabit: she exudes thought and mobility. What we have to lose is what her previous role displayed: quizzical humour and wry wit. Antigone shears off all that: we’re left with someone whose plight’s gradually wound up. The vocal timbre for Greek drama is tricky: Israel is expressive though her part allows little room to manoeuvre. Her final scene instead of winding up to tears, as Fiona Shaw for one has noted, begins and ends in them. Nevertheless, it’ll be wonderful to see Israel back in something Greek and snapping.
Inflexibly right and defiant, Antigone tells timid sister Ismene, Jessica Smith’s warmly expressive voice of reason, that she’s chosen life, Antigone herself death. Even Ismene’s initial plea to die with her is refused. Antigone’s not for anyone sharing in her posthumous glory.
One who recognizes this is Koryphaios, Lead Elder. Lewes Little stalwart Chris Parke’s debut here is outstanding. He follows others’ vocal leads, reacts with thought to every reflex of language, and moves as the compassionate voice of reason delivering everything with crystalline sadness. His sense of impending tragedy is as palpable as the readiness on his face to avert it.
The other stand-out performance is Scott Roberts’ Haimon, for much the same reason. He does indeed describe as his bio suggests an emotional arc: from baffled, supportive son through quivering recognition that his father Kreon is an unblinking tyrant whose new rule releases something appalling. Roberts reacts to Kreon, Antigone, and others with a sometimes explosive force that always builds visibly, registering keenly on his face.
Kreon’s Des Potton made an outstanding lead in Accidental Death of an Anarchist last year. Here, Kreon’s role constrains him as Antigone’s does Israel. It’s a potentially treacherous part offering little flexibility and shading till the last scenes. It can be played with unctuous reasonableness hardening quickly over time, or in a slow crumbling as here. The problem is that Kreon’s crumple arriving late on means we’re subject to Potton’s impressively rigid tyrant when some of the quiddity and unpredictability he’s brought elsewhere might have lit up some corners. There’s a shocking moment when he closes in on Antigone; he might stand off beforehand just a bit. He does threaten as Kreon, though, as he should. And he does implode.
Claire Lewis’ Eurydike is another matter, as Carson’s built her up from her five lines as Mrs Kreon. Her part’s small but devastating, a memorably still axis of grief around whom prophesies twist. She registers news with appalling clarity after her speech about being acquainted with sorrows, then everything in her silence tells you her action.
Toby Davies delivers messages with unhurried horror, Chris Knight’s Guard is suitably truculent, and Jeremy Crows is ever reliable as second to Parke, another voice of compromised sanity. The Aristophelian joke is Paddy O’Keeffe’s Tiresias accompanied by Maisie Chalk’s Girl who despite being signalled as someone who sees themselves as a Seer’s Apprentice, is sadly reduced to scratching out the future in tablets as her master prophesies extempore.
O’Keeffe’s clearly on his trolley ‘like a Becekttian tramp out of Dublin’s Superquinn’ as one audience member deliciously put it, loaded up with wines and other goodies for the cave. Fairy lights too. He holds one in his hand as he flashes them, blind himself, at the cringing Kreon – who here is animated and reactive. There’s that floor display of myths too though O’Keeffe, who‘s acted in Aristophanes’ Women of the Forum, nears the muse of comedy, jacket stencilled with a paragraph of type like one of Carson’s narrow prose-poems – or, you suspect, something his young apprentice might read out about Godot being here tomorrow: the end of prophesy. O’Keeffe’s famously a Shavian; that bright reasonableness shines through: an impatience with outmoded tyrants. His divinations seem pronouncements from the Royal Society.
This Antigone is outstandingly conceived, and for the most part executed. Chittenden will doubtless iron out the very occasional awkwardness Greek tragedy besets productions with, but everything she touches elsewhere is so clearly wrought with the text and sense of Sophocles’ terrors that it would be wonderful to see what else in this canon she’d tackle. Chittenden projects tensile expectations, stillness and a powerful arc in her work. With such a cast, with the same provisos, anything might be expected.