Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Antigone: The Burial at Thebes

Antigone: The Burial at Thebes (Furies) runs from April 30 – May 4 at the Tap Gallery. By Sophocles, translated by Seamus Heaney, directed by Chris McKay.

One of the first questions I ask when it comes to restaging classic works like Antigone is the question of relevance. Why this play? Why now? What is the significance? Of course, “interesting intellectual exercise” is a perfectly valid reason, but for a play to truly strike the mark, there needs to be some sort of resonance.

In this sense, if one has only the canon of Greek tragedy to choose from, Antigone was a smart choice to put on. The figure at its heart, Antigone (played in the performance I saw by Krystiann Dingas, who is alternating the role with Emilia Stubbs Grigoriou), is a fascinating, complicated heroine. Forbidden by the patriarchy of Thebes, the city of which she was once princess, to bury her brother Polyneices, she is defiant, unapologetically seizing agency. It is a fascinating portrait of a woman in rebellion against an unfriendly society: something which I think many women relate to quite viscerally.

Antigone is portrayed as heroic – that word is explicitly used in this translation by great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. She places honour above everything else, even her own life. Honour is a character trait most often coded masculine (and, indeed, Antigone’s sister Ismene cannot live up to this standard), as is filial devotion. But Antigone is most definitely a female character: subverting patriarchy by asserting agency. This dynamic is one I find so, so interesting, especially considering how many thousands of years old this play is.

It’s a shame, then, that although Antigone is the title character, the play is mostly about Creon, the patriarch whom she defies. This can’t really be helped, given the ancientness of the play, but Creon is significantly less interesting than his niece. The second half of the play is mostly about his man-pain, and it’s nowhere near as powerful as the first – although it is very interesting to see how the patriarchy deals with being destabilised by a defiant woman, something Heaney highlights brilliantly in his translation.

I’ve talked so far about the play: let’s focus now on the production. It is a good one, but not a great one. I wasn’t ever bored, and the cultural idiosyncrasies of Greek theatre were translated well to the modern stage. (I wasn’t entirely sure what the relationship of the chorus character, played by Peter Jamieson, to Creon was supposed to be, but it wasn’t that big a concern.) All in all, it was a very tidy one and a half hours of theatre. However, it was a bit awkward and one note in places, and I felt it could have been imbued with significantly more nuance. Several characters fell victim to declaiming, pronouncing their long monologues with great gusto but only one emotional level. This was particularly true of Brendan Layton’s Creon, who was hard to get a handle on. His emotional arc was clear from his words but not necessarily from his acting: he went from autocratic! to angry! to sad! without very much in the way of transition.

Because the play had this very flat emotional trajectory, it made it very hard to connect with. I was talking about it afterwards with my theatre date, and he said that, “I believed that they [the actors] felt it, but I didn’t feel it.” I agree completely. More care needed to be taken with the show’s emotional tapestry for it to be truly affective for the audience.

(Also, the bit with Tiresias really doesn’t work at all. It verges on the parodic: Tiresias is played by Peter Bertoni as a kind of caricature of a prophet. And whoever decided to put him in a luminescent orange toga really isn’t doing him any favours, especially since everyone else in the play is dressed in modern clothes.)

Overall, though, I think this was a solid production of a difficult play. I very much enjoyed Krystiann Dingas’ performance as Antigone, and I’d be very interested to see how Emilia Stubbs Grigoriou, who was fabulous as Ismene, does in the same role. The most interesting part of the show is its female characters: they are what makes this ancient play resonant and relevant.

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