FringeReview UK 2017
Actors of Dionysus
Festival: FringeReview UK
To paraphrase Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ – All ‘Antigones’ are alike, but each one is different in its own way. I’ve seen three productions of Sophocles’ play in 2017 alone, and several more over previous years, and they have all had their own unique style and interpretation.
Two of these have been by Actors of Dionysus, who specialise in performing Classical Greek drama. A well-named company – remember that the plays of Sophocles, Euripides, and the rest were originally written as competitive entries in the annual theatre festival in honour of Dionysus, the God of wine, of madness and of illusion.
Oedipus, who unwittingly married his mother Jocasta, bringing disaster to Thebes, has died in exile and his two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, have killed each other in a fratricidal war for control of the city. Etoecles had remained in Thebes, while Polyneices was driven out and later returned with a foreign army to sack the city and reclaim his inheritance. Now both are dead, and the monarchy has passed to Creon, their uncle.
He has decreed that, as a traitor, Polyneices does not deserve the honourable funeral that his brother will receive, but that his body should be left to rot outside the city. For the ancient Greeks, this was an even worse punishment than it seems to us, as without proper burial, a dead person could not pass into Hades. The penalty for anyone disobeying this command would be death. Antigone, Polyneices’ sister, cannot accept this judgment, and sets herself against the king and the rule of law to do what she believes to be her duty, carrying out the necessary rites for her brother.
Families – each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way . . .
The days of doing these plays in Ancient Greek costume, with the Chorus standing in a line, are long over. AoD’s earlier ‘Antigone’ rendering, ‘She Denied Nothing’, was set in a twentieth century war zone, in some kind of military hospital. It was an immersive piece of promenade theatre, and as audience we mingled with the actors in the performance space. We were given the story obliquely, rather in the manner of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’, with all the main characters ‘offstage’ and Antigone’s act of defiance and her sister’s caution mirrored by secondary characters specially written for the production.
The strength of a play like ‘Antigone’, though, is that its themes – the relationship between the individual and the State, the role and status of women in society, the power dynamics within a family and the different perspectives of humans and Gods – are sufficiently stark to allow a wide range of treatments.
The stage at Roedean School Theatre seems vast – a good twelve metres across and equally high. All black, with white backlights high up, shining down through a light haze giving us a sense of peering through gloom. With Matt Eaton’s music – deep, hollow-sounding chords echoing through the space – it felt rather like early ‘Doctor Who’ re-imagined as Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’.
A downlight caught something large, centre stage, hidden under canvas, and flanking it on either side were a pair of semi-circular structures like cages, mesh-faced and topped, open at the back, about two and a half metres tall. Then a voice called out – “Activate the City Archivists!” and the canvas was pulled off to reveal a tower, almost a cage itself, with a platform at the top. Four figures stood around the tower, side-lit, indistinct – speaking in unison, creating a layered effect, as though the sound was coming from somewhere else, somewhere unseen, distant.
“Input … Query”
Then the first voice again – “The Past”
The four voices reply – “Clarify”
“The family of Oedipus”
“Retrieving records. There is one record to display”
“Would you like to display?”
“Would you like to display?”
With a roaring of sound, the semi-circular cages are swung round so that their curved fronts face the audience, and one of the figures steps forward between them to the front of the stage, to relate –
“Two brothers, both cursed. Polyneices and Eteocles. Each will die at the hand of the other”
Then noise of battle, the bellowing of fighting warriors, and we see the two brothers, now inside the two cages, and the light on them flashes bluish and red as we see them struggling and finally writhing in their death throes. A shattering, overwhelming spectacle. Unforgettable.
The City Archivists are, of course, The Chorus – that essential element of Greek Drama who provide us with the back-story, and comment on the action as the play unfolds. And this Chorus is a computer system, a digital record of the city’s history that can be accessed to give a character – and the audience – information that they need. Sometimes we were given flashback scenes to show us events in the past.
Because this ‘Antigone’ takes place at some undetermined time in the future. There are flying drones to provide blanket surveillance of the population, and the essential elements of an individual’s personality and experience are stored digitally in a small receptacle that everyone carries with them at all times. There must be other amazing innovations in this future, too, but they aren’t relevant to the plot and so they’re not mentioned.
A very dystopian future, brought vividly to life by Deirdre Daly and Helen Coyston’s minimalist set, and Charlotte McClelland’s perfectly realised chiaroscuro lighting. The cage structures could be moved around the stage to suggest to us – now part of the Palace, then a prison cell, later on the cave where Antigone and Haemon die. The actors themselves moved the set elements into position, allowing the action to flow seamlessly from location to location.
Writer Christopher Adams and Director Tamsin Shasha have gone to the essential elements of Sophocles’ play in this production. “Two brothers, both cursed. Each will die at the hand of the other”. It doesn’t matter if they die by a bronze sword or by an AK47, the point is that both are dead. And if the Greeks of two and a half thousand years ago believed that without proper burial rites a person’s soul could not enter the Underworld and be at peace, is that so different from the necessity of shutting down some kind of electronic ‘personality’ device, that keeps tormenting its owner’s corpse until it’s deactivated?
Classical Greek drama teaches us that nothing major has changed in human nature over two and a half thousand years. Ambition, hubris, lust, revenge, the seductions of power and the ties of blood – all are present now, as they were then. Creon has become the new ruler of the city, the Chief Executive as he styles it, being the nearest male relative of the dead princes Polyneices and Eteocles. Nicholas Cass-Beggs is tall, with short grey hair, dressed all in black in a high-collared ‘Nehru’ style jacket. He cut a commanding figure in front of the TV cameras as he announced his first edict – that Eteocles was to be buried with full honours, while Polyneices would be left to rot, in the open, with his electronic ‘soul’ left running.
Creon is demanding loyalty from his new subjects, and is determined to stress that traitors should never be honoured. But he has personal reasons, too. Adams and Shasha have departed slightly from Sophocles’ text to include references to Megareus, Creon’s elder son, who was killed at the very beginning of the war. He’s been brought in from ‘Seven Against Thebes’, Aeschylus’ play about the same events. The writers have also given Euridice, Creon’s wife, a much greater presence in this version. She’s still mourning the loss of this son, as is Creon, and the effect is that we see him with much more human feelings, family feelings, rather than just being a power-obsessed tyrant.
Crystal Brown gave a spellbinding performance as Euridice, elegant and imperious, yet oozing sensuality as she tries to influence her husband. She’s incredibly protective of Haemon, her second son (and Antigone’s fiancé), trying to keep him clear of the city’s politics. At one point she twisted herself sinuously round Will Bridges’ Haemon – “What about our love?” – and I wondered if we were heading for a re-enactment of Oedipus and his mother . . .
All five actors took on multiple roles, becoming part of the City Archives as well as their own character; and Brown took this to the limit, changing her posture and adopting a Caribbean accent to become Tiresias, the blind Seer who tries to warn Creon that he’s wrong. (Interesting word combination – blind seer. And this one was a Trinidadian Tiresias . . ). For me, Crystal Brown dominated the production – a mesmerising delivery in every role, and the sheer range of her performance was astounding.
Holly Georgia was powerfully unbending as Antigone, her sense of doing ‘what is right’ teetering just this side of fanaticism. She had a great counterpoint in Nathalie Barclay’s Ismene, all fearful for her sister’s life, and also accepting of the subservient role that women have to play in that society. Remember that Creon, their uncle, is the ruler rather than Antigone, because female relatives could not inherit the monarchy. This lesser societal role was very much the situation in Sophocles’ Athens, and it seems that women, if allowed to visit the theatre at all, were only permitted to watch the tragedies, as the ribald sexual innuendo of the comedies was unsuitable . . .
I was impressed that this production brought out Creon’s ambivalence towards Antigone’s punishment. He sees that blame must be apportioned – “Your brother started that war”, and he’s also bound by the misogynistic political and social conventions – “Do not lecture me about power. You are a woman. Not even a woman, a girl!”. But Creon has admiration for Antigone’s resolve – “Six men were required to take your brother’s soul out of your hands”, and he tries hard to give his niece a way out of her martyrdom – “I do not want any more loss of life – I have not the stomach for it”.
This was a truly outstanding production, helped in great measure by the unusually clear and audible diction of all five actors. A rounded treatment, as I’ve mentioned, bringing out more of the background to the fanaticism of the main protagonists A treatment that demonstrates the timeless nature of Sophocles’ themes – these issues were important two and a half thousand years ago, they will still be relevant in five hundred years time. The Roedean audience was held spellbound for over seventy minutes, and the thunderous applause at the end was very, very well deserved.