Edinburgh Fringe 2010
The House Above again serves as a playground for Belt Up to practice their brand of immersive theatre, with small rooms sectioned off for each of their eight shows. ‘Antigone’ has one of the larger spaces and begins with a modern wake for the dead. What follows is a sucession of scenes related to, but barely derived from, the Greek play and finally reaches a startling moment of pathos. Their adaptation deviates from the original, indicating that Belt Up still has creativity, but rambles around the premise without getting into the plot.
The conflict at the heart of ‘Antigone’ is between the rights of the individual and that individual’s duty to the state. Creon, the new head of state, has decreed that Etocles, his predeccessor and nephew, be buried with full military honours, while his twin brother Polyneices be left to rot. Their sister Antigone then risks the death penalty by burying Polyneices, citing her duty to the dead and to her family takes over her duty to the state. Her uncle, and prospective father-in-law, places civic duty above familial. With both as stubborn as each other, the tragedy naturally unfolds from there.
At least, it should do. But Belt Up’s ponderous production establishes the fact of Polyneices’ lack of burial in two different scenes as well as showing Creon’s proclamation on the matter (and that’s half-way in!). It’s only in the last twenty minutes that they really get going, with a significant break from Sophocles that vividly demonstrates Belt Up’s creative flair. Finally, they have some fun with the text and get right to the human heart of the issue: that conflict between the personal and political within one family. But they could have gotten there so much more quickly. Instead of layering scenes one after the other in no discernable sequence, and repeating information we have already heard, Belt Up could take note of the progression of action used in the original; it’s a far simpler way of telling a story.
The ticket claims this is an ‘interactive performance’, but don’t let that fool you; Belt Up allow interaction at the start (ie. they make everyone stand once they’ve got comfortable) and give a nod to it at the end by reminding us that they started the play at a wake. However, this bears all the hallmarks of Belt Up’s inventive style. They’ve created their own space and filled it with things to create a world entirely of their own, a world they surround their audience with. If theatre is about transporting the audience to other places, convincing them they’re looking at the real ruler of Thebes and the real children of the real Oedipus, then this is bang on the mark. But it’s immersive rather than interactive.
Greek tragedy tends to need a stand-out performance in the title role, and Belt Up are lucky to have an actress perfectly capable of balancing Antigone’s stubborn rage with her open-hearted love and steely determination. Once the script allows her to get on with some actual acting (instead of being told the premise she has already heard once), she captures the individual who gives up their right to life after knowingly going against the state and at that moment ‘Antigone’ hit a moment of pure high drama. The noble request for immediate death, and the even more dignified, pained granting of that request, generate responses that the entire play should have been creating – not just in the last ten minutes.
Though they get the final moments of the tragedy down perfectly, Belt Up have produced a sedate and cumbersome play with a repetitive plot that needs ironing out and streamlining.