Brighton Fringe 2017
We’d walked in off Exeter Street and now we were in the large space of the Hall, all white painted walls and exposed roof trusses high above us. Cardboard boxes, in stacks three or four high, scattered around the space. At one end of the room a body, its contours covered by a white sheet, lay on a gurney. It looked very much like what it was supposed to be – a military hospital, in a commandeered building in a war zone.
Obviously a contemporary war; the medical staff were in smocks and loose pants of hospital-blue, while the few military figures who were present wore modern uniforms. This is a piece of immersive theatre, and we were meant to be ‘walking wounded’, able to move freely around the space and observe the action. Some patients were already there when we arrived; wandering around with limbs bandaged or hobbling on crutches.
They spread out across the hall, filling the space, and when they came together they formed a Chorus. Together they chanted the lines, telling us the back-story of the civil war between Polyneices and Eteocles, princes of Thebes, and how both had been killed in the fighting.
They told us how Creon, the princes’ uncle and now King of Thebes, had decreed that Eteocles was to be interred with full ceremony while the body of his brother Polyneices was to be left unburied, to rot in the yard outside. They told how their sister Antigone defied Creon’s edict, stealing her brother’s body to give it proper funeral rites, and was herself put to death for disobeying the King’s edict.
Antigone, princess of Thebes. “Antigone, with fire in her belly”, defying the law of the King to follow the Laws set down by the Gods – “To ensure that Polyneices would not stand forever outside the gates of Hades”.
Actors of Dionysus are attempting two things with ‘She Denied Nothing’. They are staging a contemporary re-telling of Sophocles’ play, showing how the moral dilemma of the individual’s conscience versus the State has remained unchanged over two and a half millennia. But they are also doing something rather in the manner of ‘Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead’ – showing what’s happening ‘offstage’ as it were, to a pair of minor characters, while the main action of the play is unfolding somewhere else.
Tom Stoppard did it to ‘Hamlet’, and here writer and director Faye Hughes, along with artistic director Tamsin Shasha, have done the same sort of thing to ‘Antigone’. So it’s a modern war, although it’s still situated at Thebes; but we never see Creon, Antigone or her sister Ismene. Instead we meet Hestia and her friend Alexandra, medical staff who process the corpses of soldiers slain in the war, preparing them for burial.
We gradually learn that, some time before, Hestia has helped Antigone to take away the body of Polyneices. This, of course, is a capital crime under Creon’s laws, and Alexandra is horrified when she realises what her friend has done. Tamsin Shasha’s Hestia is the contemporary Antigone; principled and passionately devoted to justice. “I know the laws set down by the Gods and I follow them, even if they contradict the laws set down by men. I am a woman – I follow my heart”.
Alexandra is the updated Ismene, fearful of being punished. Andrea Newland played her loud, fierce in stating her priorities as a mother – “How could you be so reckless? You endanger your family, your friends. I put my children first; that is the natural order”.
One reading of ‘Antigone’ would partly excuse Creon’s wrathful suppression of any dissent – The King has to put the stability of his city before everything else – but ‘She Denied Nothing’ casts him simply as a brutal dictator. A totalitarian regime. Huge posters – a stern-faced head and shoulders above the simple word CREON – took up one whole wall of the hospital. He’s sent an agent, Angele, to the hospital – we’d seen her intermittently, stomping around the space with her tightly belted raincoat and her briefcase. “I am come to investigate the disappearance of the corpse of the traitor Polyneices, last accounted for here, before the theft and unlawful burial”. Louisa Lawrenson’s voice was cold and her diction chillingly precise. In an added twist, Angele is the cousin of Hestia – justice and vengeance are about to cut through family ties …
This is clever and imaginative production, and as we were ushered out at the end we were given programmes, which also contained a synopsis of Sophocles’ play. It would have helped if we had been given these before the start – The Chorus were a bit ragged on some of their lines, which made it difficult to hear some details of the play’s background exposition. Similarly, characters often spoke quite quickly – speedy delivery sounds like authentic speech, but makes it harder for the audience to take in the information.
Another issue for me was the physicality of the actors. While the main characters were giving us the story; the others kept falling into stylized poses, twisting their bodies back and forth or adopting weirdly repetitive actions with a syringe or a crutch. It reminded us that we were in a busy hospital environment, which I suppose is the point, but occasionally it felt like we were in an asylum and overall it didn’t add anything to the play’s meaning.
But, despite those caveats, this is a powerful re-rendering of ‘Antigone’. The tension built inexorably as Hestia’s actions were gradually revealed, and the performances were such that I believed in her completely as a person, likewise her friend Alexandra. I cared about them as people, sympathised with their dilemma, and was chilled by the thought of the inevitable fate that awaited them. Looking back on the performance, the immersive staging makes me feel that I was actually there with them in the hospital – what more can you ask of theatre?