In 2018, “Greek tragedy” seems a tough sell – fortunately, the Mermaids’ production of the classic play Antigone, spearheaded by directors Greta Kelly and Lorna Govan, had its run just as deadline season hit, and I for one was in the mood for some healthy catharsis after my first all-nighter of the year.
For those unfamiliar, Antigone is one of the three “Oedipus plays” written by Sophocles about, yes, *that* Oedipus (if you’re none the wiser, I’m afraid I have to send you to Google). In this instalment, Oedipus’ daughter Antigone (Charlie Robertson) gives her fallen brother his funeral rites against the orders of Creon (George Watts), the ruler of Thebes (also her uncle). Unsurprisingly, he is not best pleased, and his harsh punishment leads to tragedy after tragedy.
This production was promoted as “a modern take on a Greek classic”, a phrase which can strike fear into any theatre aficionado’s heart. “Modern takes” can, of course, be wonderful, but they can also be very, very, bad. Having seen both versions, I was quite worried walking into this one.
However, there was no need to fret: apart from using modern costuming, the modernisation was wisely concentrated on the Greek chorus, which exists to swoop in, summarise and comment on the action. In a stroke of genius, this production envisaged them as journalists onstage, dressed in monochrome, clutching notebooks and pens. When shooting questions at Creon in his suave blue suit, ushered back by the guard, they needed but cameras and flashing lights to transport us to a political press conference. This was a bold, direct reference to increasing tensions between the media and political leaders, and an apparent defence of journalism as a means of interpreting current events and holding powerful people to account.
That is where the political parallels end. The political leader of Antigone is eloquent and shrewd, weaponizing words to justify his actions, which our chorus hurriedly scribble down. He strategizes, plots and puts his plans into immediate effect. This is a portrait of a dangerous but competent tyrant.
In terms of cultural relevance, the directors choice of Marianne McDonald’s 2000 translation promoted the feminist themes of the play, with Watts’ Creon seethingly spitting out lines like “As long as I’m alive, no woman will tell me what to do”, among others.
Unfortunately, despite Miss Robertson’s impressive and committed performance, Antigone did not seem the rebellious hero the script would have her be. Her initial scenes showed her as wilful, but her climactic confrontation with Creon revealed the difficulty of showing both intense emotion and strength. Her pain and fear were superbly portrayed, but a sense of quiet defiance and righteousness rather than perpetual explosive anger may have given us a more admirable heroine. Antigone is not a temperamental child – passionate, yes, but she is still a courageous woman, standing up to the most powerful man in the kingdom for what she believes is right. This aspect of her may have been more keenly explored.
This wouldn’t have been such a problem if Antigone featured more in the play and had a more satisfying arc. My main problem with this play has always been that it could be more accurately titled “Creon”, since it is in fact principally about him. Mr Watts’ Creon was spiteful, controlling and by turns psychotic; it was powerfully played and gave the play great tension and colour. Creon’s character has not aged well in the 2,000-odd years since his inception. His determination to maintain order, probably a positive character trait in the eyes of Sophocles’ contemporary audience, is now seen negatively and has been often politicised in recent incarnations – Seamus Heaney draws a direct comparison between Creon and President George Bush with the inclusion of “either you are with us, or you are against us” in his translation – which may explain such a harsh portrayal in this production.
A special mention must go out to the entire supporting cast who all were fantastic in their own right and it’s a shame that they didn’t get more scenes (an unfortunate side-effect of playing in a Greek tragedy, as half of your time onstage is likely to be as a corpse). Additionally, the tech team got a time to shine in a well-choreographed sequence where the chorus members strode around the space thinking their ideas out loud, complemented by dramatic red lighting.
Such a classic play inevitably has many different interpretations to offer, and those familiar with it will never be fully satisfied with any production. With this and the month-long rehearsal time in mind, I was impressed by this production’s effort, particularly by the clever and relevant use of the chorus, an element of the play that could have been so easily neglected or cut out completely. Greater use of experimentation and workshopping in rehearsal may have led to more nuanced portrayals of the main characters, which would have allowed for a deeper exploration of the wealth of themes addressed. The actors certainly had the talent to do it: just perhaps not the time.