by Shannon Friday
Where Sophocles warned against human hubris upsetting the natural order, Jean Anouilh’s version, written and first performed during the Nazi occupation of France, questions a citizen’s responsibilities in a broken world. He questioned things like obedience, justice, authority, and even the value of civil disobedience as a form of protest. With social concerns at the hear of Anouilh's play, Backyard Theatre Production’s Antigone, translated from the French by Lewis Galantière and directed by Ivana Palezevic, is a considerate choice. However, Palezevic’s production emphasises plot and genre over argument and language. The result hits well with folks keen to appreciate a great adaptation of a classic play, right down to the gorgeous mask-like face paint. At the same time, this Antigone alludes to rather than raises social, political, or moral questions.
The actors have different levels of comfort with Anouilh’s long, evocative arguments, whether giving or receiving. Hamish Boyle, aside from a few opening night fumbles, plays the Chorus with a vocal fluidity and slight sense of mischief, cutting through long passages of exposition or thematic significance with the fluidity of an old-time radio announcer. Boyle breezes through long paragraphs right to the most important part. He lets the key idea settle for a tantalizing moment, before whipping the audience away again. “Tragedy is clean,” he opines. “Death in a melodrama is really horrible because it is never inevitable.” His role as the voice of Greek fatalism, frees up the audience to look at why each person holds their viewpoint, even knowing the inevitable outcomes.
Catherine Zulver’s Antigone is fueled by a melancholic certainty. She’s less petulant teenager and more confident (perhaps overconfident) young woman. And Zulver is a generous stage partner. She and Haemon (James Bayliss) feel tenderly connected as she leans into his arms, waiting for a snuggle. Zulver’s quick-fire responses and detailed reactions bring some much-needed pace to an easy-to-underplay scene where Antigone impatiently goads her sister Ismene (Annica Lewis).
In the play’s extended second half -- essentially a political argument between Antigone and Creon with Antigone’s life in the balance -- Zulver brings a fiery directness to the production. “If a person can do something,” she spits at Creon, rejecting his realpolitik justifications, “then a person should do something.” It feels like every single word has significance; the full force of Antigone’s passion driving her forward against the unbreakable Creon. But this is not a woman without doubts; Zulver’s slight reactions, whether ducking her chin or bolting from the table, reveal when she’s been hit as well. This Antigone expresses every opinion or reaction in her head and body; she is a fully active citizen.
Malcom Gillett’s King Creon is a powerful figure. Gillett’s rigidly held physicality never wavers, and his comparative stillness gives him great status; Creon sits in his dining room chair like a throne. It’s important for the balance of the play; Anouilh’s version gives the first half to Antigone, making us love her, and the second half to watching her resist, bait, taunt, castigate, and order Creon. Gillett’s power gives her a great physical foil; his sturdy body contrasting with her slim one.
However, Gillett hardly matches Zulver’s impassioned energy or careful attention. He recites his lines like a schoolboy nervously playing at being principal, with a sing-songy vocal pattern that ignores content or tactic, directing his lines to the floor or tabletop rather than his scene partners. At other times, Gillett overplays the obvious image with a cartoony condescension that overrides the greater argument. While I can picture Gillett as a captain with his hands on the pirate-ship giant steering wheel, for example, I completely miss the sense of why Creon chose to captain the ship in the first place. And without making completely clear Creon’s stakes, and the subtle intelligence behind his decisions, the second act feels flat, repetitive, and lacking in urgency.
Without this twisting, clear central conflict of ideas, much of the play feels slightly meandering, a feeling not helped by some absolutely random music choices and some decidedly strange lighting cues. Each element on its own does something cool and memorable; Aaron Blackledge’s high sidelights and angles of colour in the lights create very, very cool stage pictures as they reveal key details in the makeup (Sam Thacker and Sam Woodside) like Creon’s lined cheeks or Haemon’s shadowed eyes. The baroque music cues set up a privileged environment of empire, but the timing of the changes feels random, pulling me away from thinking about what is being said or why to noticing the change for its own sake.
When the characters, and their viewpoints, clash the show is fucking incandescent. Anouilh’s commentary of civil disobedience shows most clearly through Ismene’s arc. When we first see Ismene, she is cringing and frightened, urging her sister to wait and let someone else take care of it. It is only after Antigone acts that Ismene stands in solidarity with her sister. “I’ll do it [bury my brother] alone tonight!” she screeches defiantly at Creon. Antigone’s response sends Creon physically recoiling in horror, “You hear that, Creon?” she hoots, “who knows how many people will catch the disease from me?” Her towering triumph, and his cringing acknowledgement that he is beaten, give the moment tragic weight. And it is this moment, when the need to right the play’s core wrong leaps from one individual to another, that finally seals Antigone’s fate, as Creon orders her taken away.
Anouilh’s play leaves the future of the state rather ambiguous. His final image is chilling: Creon stands alone with his page onstage. His wife dead, his son is dead, his city in disarray, Creon wearily asks his page, “What have we got on now?” “Cabinet meeting,” responds the page. “Cabinet meeting?” repeats Creon. “Let’s get to it.” The single man going on in face of ruin is chilling in its own right, and I feel a deep pang of sympathy for Creon as a character. At the same time, I want to have feelings about the larger society, not just its ruler. Both Sophocles and Anouilh are pretty straight-up about the social commentary inherent in the story, but Palezevic’s production doesn’t demand I ask any of the questions written into the script. This production faithfully gives its audience Antigone’s story, and I wish it had given us the urgent clash of ideas that come with it.
Antigone is on at the Gryphon Theatre until 22 July. Check out backyardtheatre.co.nz or the production's Facebook page for times and booking information.