Sophocles’ Theban plays are among the all-time greatest stories in literature, and along with Aeschylus and Euripides, was one of the great dramatists of the Athenian Golden Age. Mythic, epic and created on a grand scale, Sophocles’ plays changed theatrical form as it was then known and became classics of their time and for all time. Presented here by independent company Furies at Darlinghurst’s Tap Gallery’s intimate downstairs theatre, Antigone is, alongside Oedipus the King (or Oedipus Rex as it is more commonly known), perhaps his most well known play. The story of Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter, it tells the struggle of how she strove to give her brother Polyneices the burial he deserved. Defying the order of the king, she faces the consequences of her actions, setting in motion a tragic (albeit preventable) train of events.
Very much a tragedy in the Greek sense and in a modern sense, Seamus Heaney’s version of Sophocles’ play is clean, clear and fresh. Unlike Ted Hughes’ translation of Racine’s Phèdre as produced by Bell Shakespeare last year, there are no brutal slabs of text or rhyming couplets, no jagged edges, just crisp performable lines, equally suited to the Greek tragedy style as well as a contemporary mode of performance. And here, as envisaged by Furies, there are shades of modern wars and conflicts, civilian deaths; news footage of grieving wives and mothers and daughters, fathers, sons, brothers; about cultural fear and fear-mongering, about panic; about traditions and right actions, courage and defiance… Eamon Flack in his writer’s note in the Currency Classics edition of Antigone expands upon these parallels, showing how the story is as much about then as it is about now, and it’s hard not to feel moved by Antigone’s impassioned plea for her brother’s burial, even if she knows it is outside the law.
The cast here are all strong, and the direction by Chris McKay is assured, clear and focused. Nothing gets lost in the telling or performing of this tragedy, and even though there is always the heightened nature of Greek tragedy, it never crosses over into histrionic or hysterical, but rather stays grounded in a more naturalistic interpretation of the story, and it is all the more stronger for it. The set, designed by Lucy Watson, is fragmented and broken, a nightmarish blend of black floor, white walls, yellow cracklines, and a garish Munch-esque painting of the gods. This description makes it sound gaudy and ungainly, but it isn’t, not really – set, though not explicitly, in a dystopian future we are told in the program notes, it is clearly a world in which something is not right, and the gods are angry. The guards and messengers – James Stubbs Grigoriou and Joshua O’Sullivan – speak in truisms and jargon; Peter Jamesion’s Chorus is a cross between a news reporter, political sycophant and a humble narrator, nicely stepping between the three as the scenes change. Michael Booker’s Haemon is downplayed and real, Creon’s anguished son trying to get his father to see reason, while in Brendan Layton’s Creon, there are shades of every political leader, every public figure who doesn’t listen to his people and dangerously, blindly, follows tradition, and there is a real power and danger to his king too. Peter Bertoni as the blind prophet Tiresias is perhaps the most exaggerated, but in his gruff voice, beard and robes, he looks and sounds every bit the crazed godly messenger, and makes sense of what could be a hellfire-and-brimstone kind of all-seeing, all-knowing character. Emma White’s Eurydice, while only really seen at the end, conveys the pathos and stoicism in the queen, and her death compounds the grief and tragedy of the play. As Ismene, Krystiann Dingas brought a sisterly affection and tenderness to her role, while Emilia Stubbs Grigoriou brought a fierce determination and immovable resolution to her Antigone, helping to ground the production in a real world of emotion, grief and tragedy.
There is much to admire in this production – from the passion and conviction of the cast, to the simplicity and rawness of their playing and the set and costumes, to the clearness and focus of the direction. For the first time, I felt the power in these tragedies and realised just how pertinent they are to our contemporary culture – beneath their epic emotions and their borderline histrionic conniptions, are beating thumping hearts which have not stopped in two and a half thousand years. Perhaps it's time we looked at them again.