Friday, October 28, 2016

Antigone by Sophocles, adapted by Damien Ryan

Andrea Demetriades as Antigone, William Zappa as King Creon
in Sophocles, Antigone adapted by Damien Ryan
Antigone by Sophocles, adapted by Damien Ryan.  Presented by Sport for Jove and The Seymour Centre at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, October 27-29, 2016.

Damien Ryan: Writer and Director; Terry Karabelas: Director.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 27

It may seem a bit far-fetched to compare Damien Ryan with the Ancient Greek Sophocles, but.... 

Of course, the idea of writing three plays tracing the myth of the accursed House of Labdacus was entirely Sophocles’.  The story shows how Oedipus became King of Thebes (Oedipus Rex), why he was banished by his successor Creon and settled in the village of Colonus near Athens where his “soul was received into the blessed abodes...” (Oedipus at Colonus), and finally how Oedipus’ sons, Eteocles and Polynikes fought – Eteocles defending Thebes while Polynikes allied with the Argives to attack.  When both were killed – they killed each other – and Creon was once more in charge, he decreed that only Eteocles would receive proper burial rites, while the body of Polynikes “should be left in ignominy, un-wept and unburied, upon the plain where it lay.  Penalty of death was promulgated against any who should defy this order; and the voices of the city, whether in consent or in fearful submission, were silent.”  [Sophocles: The Theban Plays trans. E F Watling]

Antigone shows the final collapse of the House of Labdacus, as the two daughters of Oedipus – Antigone and Ismene – and Creon’s son, Haemon, defy Creon’s order.

I’m guessing that the words of the Chorus, the people of Thebes, stimulated Damien Ryan to seek a way to show how modern Sophocles’ thinking was, at the time when Athens was experimenting with a new form of government – rule by the people.  With Creon still in power as King, they say to Antigone:

An act of homage is good in itself, my daughter;
But authority cannot afford to connive at disobedience.
You are the victim of your own self-will.

Here is the essence of the politics in the play, as Ryan notes in the Program: The theme of the individual conscience struggling against the power of judicial law and the state is eternal and inspirational.  The loss of political balance into extremism and groups that kill for their own moral or religious law is terrifying.

But Ryan has cleverly not done as many other directors have done in recent times with Shakespeare.  He has not transposed the play into some modern place, though the stage set looks eerily like this week’s news pictures of Aleppo, but he has written into the dialogue mention of modern weaponry and human rights violations as if Thebes is one of the cities we know, like Mosul or Raqqa, or indeed Aleppo today.

Then he has done the most daring adapting by writing in what Sophocles might have thought of, but couldn’t quite go there: Ryan’s Creon announces that “tomorrow” we will have democracy, saying that he and his family will stand down from kingship to become ordinary citizens like everyone else.

The edict of the death penalty concerning burying the body of Polynikes legally remains in force, of course, and Antigone does her deed that very night – before tomorrow comes.  And dies before Creon heeds the voice of the people to release her from prison.

Yet the strength of this production is not just in the twists and turns of argument about government: Damien Ryan has brought the personal story of Antigone, her sister Ismene and her lover Haemon to life in a way that could never have been presented on the great outdoor theatre in Sophocles’ Athens.  We see and hear them speak to us directly in scenes additional to Sophocles’ descriptions by messengers in the original script.

Ryan writes: Tragedy’s intention is to remind us we are alive.  And indeed his writing and directing has brought Sophocles to life in this remarkable production of Antigone.

The success of this production also relied very much on casting, set design, sound design and lighting.

Casting Andrea Demetriades as Antigone, Louisa Mignone as Ismene, Joseph Del Re as Haemon, Anna Volska as Tiresias – the seer who so severely criticises Creon’s actions, William Zappa as Creon, Deborah Galanos as Creon’s wife Eurydice, and Fiona Press as the Leader of the Chorus made a brilliant team – all except William Zappa (for obvious reasons) doubling as members of the Chorus along with Janine Watson, Thomas Royce-Hampton, Marie Kamara and Elijah Williams, who also played respectively the Sentry, the Soldier (and live percussionist), the young Boy and the older Boy with critical messenger roles.

Such quality casting and grouping emphasised the sense of community in the people of Thebes, enhanced by the use of song and Greek language shouts for action, of acclamation, of concern, drawing us into their culture and involving us emotionally in their lives.  Terry Karabelas’ work shone through the production, as did Scott Witt’s choreography.

Sets and costume design by Melanie Liertz, working with scenic artist Rosalind McKelvey Bunting, took us exactly into a city almost destroyed by years of warfare, even down to graffiti, with a mood to match in Matt Cox’s lighting and Bruce Halliday's sound design.

This is a production not to be missed, with a run after Canberra at Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, November 9-12.  Well worth the drive.