photo Nic Montagu
In the program notes for Thinice’s Perth International Arts Festival production of Sophocles’ Antigone, adapter Eamon Flack describes the play as “terrifyingly contemporary.” While acknowledging the textual complexity and instability of the play written in the 5th century BC and set in the Bronze Age of ancient Thebes, he signals a firm orientation towards the present. “I started searching for moments in the modern world that are like moments in the play”, he writes, citing Iraq, Kosovo, Palm Island, Iraq, women in war zones, public and political panic. But can theatre be other than contemporary? Antigone is a text burdened with translations and centuries of theatrical incarnations: Christian Antigone, Antigone the individualist, the feminist heroine, the exception to the rule; all such manifestations are contemporary at the time of their production, and flap about noisily in the wings of any new adaptation.
Thinice’s Antigone eschews direct reference to current events, choosing instead to signal its modernity not at the level of text, but through its directorial decisions. Befitting the modern moment, Matthew Lutton’s production is all sound and fury. The production opens with an interpolated prologue (from Oedipus Rex) in which Oedipus provides a context for the tragic events. Musicians sit to one side, singer Rachel Dease keens freely, Eurydice (Nicola Bartlett) slumps over a washing machine while her daughter carries out the ritual cleansing of the body of her brother, Eteokles.
When Antigone (Kate Mulvany) defies the order of her uncle Kreon (Colin Moody) that only Eteokles deserves the rights of sepulture and instead sets about burying the traitorous Polynices, audiences at the Subiaco Arts Centre would not be dissuaded of the idea that Antigone is a victim who stands clearly on the side of women and family, in opposition to Father or ‘State.’ But, as legal philosopher Bonnie Honig argues persuasively, what is played out in the ancient text is the struggle between two orders of law; between fidelity to family, blood and the old laws of the Homeric gods (signified in Antigone’s blind defiance of her uncle Kreon’s prohibition), and fidelity to the people, the polis, to the needs of the state and the emergent democracy, upheld blindly by Kreon (“Antigone’s Laments, Creon’s Grief: Mourning, Membership, and the Politics of Exception”, Political Theory, 2009). Both of these “economies of mourning”, argues Honig, are excessive and politically unstable. Ambiguity and lack lie on the side of both Antigone and her uncle, and while this ambiguity may have been suggested by the text of Lutton’s production of Antigone, the compression of action and the absence of space and silence on stage obscure any real examination of “limited right.”
In the Greek play, news of death is reported by messengers; true horror is unknowable, the rotting body haunting yet unrepresentable, and death is mediated by the slippery passage of language across the stage. Lutton chooses to situate the off-stage action onstage, placing events in front of the audience. In the final stages of the play we witness the suicides of Antigone and her betrothed Haemon through a wall of transparent glass behind which Antigone has been imprisoned. They die upstage, smeared in blood. Such is death in the contemporary world; Antigone and Haemon die deaths fit for celebrity—private deaths enacted in the public sphere of theatre. Kreon’s wife Eurydice, unable to bear her grief, removes her dressing gown and kills herself, like a suburban Sylvia Plath. While Kreon stands by in horror, we are free to feed on the modern tragedy, like paparazzi claiming to adore the invaded object.
The full house no doubt came away agreeing that stubborn pride and inflexible rule are no good for anyone, be it father, daughter, or Prime Minister; that you ignore good council at your own peril and that blood runs thicker than water. Most reasonable people would agree with President Obama that fallen soldiers should be mourned openly and given full honour. But what of the terrorist and the traitor? What of Polynices? What do we do with those who remain, in Judith Butler’s term, “ungrievable”? A terrifyingly contemporary question.
Perth International Arts Festival: Thinice productions, Antigone, writer Sophocles, adaptation Eamon Flack, director Matthew Lutton, performers Nicola Bartlett, Rachael Dease, Brendan Ewing, Colin Moody, Kate Mulvany, Samantha Murray, Gibson Nolte, Kingsley Reeve, composer, lyrics Rachael Dease, designer Bryan Woltjen, sound designer Kingsley Reeve, lighting Nick Higgins; Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth, Feb 21-March 7
RealTime issue #90 April-May 2009 pg. 43
© Josephine Wilson; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org