Brighton Fringe 2012
Oedipus, who as we all know, unwittingly married his mother Jocasta, has died in exile from Thebes, and his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, have killed each other in a fratricidal war for control of the city. Eteocles had remained in Thebes, while Polynices 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, Polynices does not deserve the honourable burial that his brother will receive, but that his body should be left to rot outside the city. Antigone, Polynices’ 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, giving her brother proper funeral rites.
Families! Don’t you just love ’em?
‘Antigone’ is one of the most thought-provoking of all the Greek tragedies. A whole set of 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 all examined in this highly compressed and relatively short play of Sophocles. It’s even further compressed in this production by Theatre Rheo, with just two actresses taking on all the major protagonists and the role of the Chorus too.
Theatre Rheo describe themselves as a ‘physical theatre company’, and that was evident in ‘Antigone’. Upstairs at the Temple Bar is a small venue, and the set was stripped back to just a small platform, less than six inches high, and a creased black curtain as a backdrop. Simple frontal lighting made no attempt at mood or subtlety.
But we had no need of subtle staging effects – the two actresses dominated their space, dressed in clinging white tops over black leggings, with wide belts at the waist giving them a Classical look – think of the statue of the Charioteer of Delphi. Their movements, posture and gestures clearly defined each one’s situation and character, whether it was King Creon, proud and unbending, or Antigone strangling in her noose near the play’s end. The pair slipped seamlessly between characters and the Chorus, which was a little confusing until we realised what the play’s conventions were, but allowed them to retain the Greek dramatic structure. As the Chorus, they gave us big sweeping arm and head movements, showing us soldiers with spears and crested helmets, chanting the text or ululating with grief. The two women sang too, acappella singing, just notes not words, producing a vivid accompaniment to the stylised, exaggerated gestures of grief and despair.
Susanna Hook, tall and rangy with short dark hair, showed us an Antigone desperate to do the honourable thing for her brother. At the start we saw her gathering up ashes to scatter on his corpse. Proper white ashes, not just grey dust – ashes have always symbolised spiritual cleansing (think about sprinkling ashes on the head on Ash Wednesday) and sitting among the ashes as a sign of mourning is mentioned as far back as ‘The Odyssey’. The fine white powder was occasionally blown towards the audience, and progressively whitened Hook’s black leggings as the play proceeded. At one point her fingers left long white lines across the platform as she clawed at the earth to bury her dead brother. She also portrayed the oracle Tiresias, who tells king Creon that his decrees are not acceptable to the Gods, and here she gave us the anguished writhing, stamping and grimacing that comes with supernatural possession.
Mimi Findlay is shorter, black, with a compact athletic body and wonderfully braided black hair. She started as Antigone’s sister Ismene, the conventional, law-abiding sister who doesn’t want to risk the king’s wrath. I thought she was rather dull and lifeless, but then she became Creon and suddenly she was imperious, dominating the space with a steely stare of enormous eyes. She held herself like those statues of Egyptian pharaohs (apologies for the wandering cultural references) and I heard myself mutter – "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look upon my works, Ye mighty, and despair". Creon is obsessed with the security of The State and resolute that he must crush any dissent. Mimi was completely believable in this role.
For this is a play about how much the state should be able to demand of its citizens. King Creon is adamant that the security of Thebes comes before any other consideration, and that harsh punishment for treason will discourage other potential dissidents – "Whoever places a friend above the good of his own country, he is nothing – I have no use for him". 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" (George W Bush) there is no room for the individual conscience.
So, a very timely play. About state power, but a play about gender too. Antigone is a royal princess, but as a woman she cannot inherit the kingdom. Ismene her sister justifies her own inaction – "We must be sensible, we’re not born to contend with men". A lot of the unbending fanaticism shown by Creon comes from the fact that he is being opposed by a woman. Although he is obsessed with security – "Our country is our safety" – he needs to uphold the status-quo as a man as well as a king. It’s also about the conflict between human decisions and an overarching moral framework. When condemned by Creon, Antigone retorts – "Nor did I think that your edicts had such force that you, a mere mortal, could override the Gods".
The downside? The physical theatre was sometimes a little unfocused – some of the emotional movement didn’t seem to mean much except "we’re emotional", and the Chorus voices were not always quite in synchronisation. Susanna Hook told me that she and Mimi Findlay directed themselves in this piece, and a few audience members I talked to later said that another pair of eyes, looking at the action from off the stage, might have been useful to tighten up the action. It was sometimes difficult to hear, too, with the sound of the venue’s ventilation system producing an underlying rumble.
Overall, though, a memorable evening. I shall not easily forget the stretching, twisting figures against the stark black stage, the haunting notes of Mimi Findlay’s singing, or the long white lines of ash across the floor, so reminiscent of the marks of a whipping or from a cat-of-nine-tails, tracing Antigone’s anguish.
The whole production, and certainly Creon’s speech about treason, brought to mind 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". When I came to write this review 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. Colonus was where Oedipus went into exile from Thebes, and I am struck that this play probably influenced Forster’s morality and pacifism.