Antigone waits, sprawled on the rough floor, naked except for a black raincoat pulled over her head. The Torturer is clipping plastic sheeting to an overhead beam. “Things get lost in translation, don’t they?” he says, grinning over his shoulder. He’s looking forward to the work of mutilation.
Inspired by Sophocles’ Antigone, writer Jane Montgomery Griffiths offers a new play about the horrors of life in a world where compassion, empathy and liberal good feeling are outlawed and punishable by death. The result is heavy, angstful, at times wincingly grandiose, but at least provocative. Griffiths, who is also a classicist, draws extensively from the Ancient Greek original, using a number of closely adapted scenes and speeches; but her evident frustration with the current drift of political discourse makes her impatient with Sophocles’ plotting, pushing the work in a different — and less dramaturgically secure — direction.
In Sophocles’ version, Antigone, one of two surviving daughters of the ill-fated Oedipus, is caught trying to bury the body of her brother after he was killed during an unsuccessful attack on the city of Thebes. It has been decreed that anyone who buries — or even mourns for — the traitor will be put to death. And so Antigone is condemned.
Griffiths makes her Thebes a cold and hostile dystopia, a state menaced by terrorists, but which is itself ruled by terror. The leader of the city, played by Griffiths herself, is similarly cold and hostile. She is a nameless politician, surrounded by nameless bureaucrats and nameless torturers, a woman who has buried her humanity deep beneath ambition:
“I must fulfil the law,” she insists. “The polls would plummet if I changed the rules.”
Director Adena Jacobs’ production, played on a square slab of greyness with a small prefab room on stilts toward the back of the stage, captures the sense of creeping terror and more-or-less permanent crisis, mostly through the powerfully stark and suggestive design ensemble.
It begins with a tableau of the entire cast in positions of submission. Pants are pulled down and faces are hidden. Simultaneously we notice that the bodies have been censored with flesh-toned underclothes, visually erasing the genitalia — and, it is implied, their capacity for desire, perhaps even love. The buzz of distorted guitars, like a militarised swarm of bees, swells ominously. The grey slab seems to hover in the vast darkness, as if the “ship of state” were adrift on the blackest ocean.
Or are we already in Antigone’s cave, her tomb, neither among mortals nor yet among the dead?
This sense of being already immured is accentuated in the first scene where Antigone confronts her sister Ismene, begging for her help in burying the body. They are inside in the small room, only head and shoulders visible through the window, voices transmitted by microphone. It is the stand out moment of the production, a beautifully composed stage picture. And here, at the beginning, the script cleaves close to something like the original sense of the Greek, bringing together poetry and precept with strong, insistent rhythms and minimalist syntax: very urgent and very dramatic.
But in a way this first confrontation between the two sisters is like a pathetic symbol for the rest of the production. Antigone acknowledges her kinship with Ismene, but angrily decides to break the tie of blood and do what she feels is right; similarly in this scene Jane Montgomery Griffiths acknowledges the origins of her story, but angrily decides to break the tie and do her own thing, embracing the hubris of her protagonist.
Heiner Müller said that political theatre is like a horse harnessed to a car. “The car won’t run too well and the horse doesn’t survive it.” Griffiths’ attempt to bring forward a topical political agenda seems to have broken the dramaturgical mechanism of the Antigone story, and in doing so suppressed the play’s natural contemporary resonances.
Once it all cranks up and starts moving — unfortunately — Griffiths’ limitations as a playwright become apparent. In this adapted world, Antigone is the last of the “bleeding heart liberals”. For Griffiths, this is her deinos, her tragic strangeness: that she alone in this time of crisis has retained her humanity and sense of what is decent and right.
Because the play is performed for an audience that one imagines is almost entirely sympathetic to her cause, this Antigone does not in fact seem very strange to us. The tragic in this play is thus foreclosed; instead we get a sort of grinding, gothic melodrama with occasional notes of bathos — such as Josh Price’s high-camp Nosferatu performance as the Torturer.
And regardless of whether or not you agree that off-shore processing of asylum seekers is a bad thing, or that state-sanctioned torture is repugnant, or that government surveillance has gone too far, or that jingoistic demagoguery is not a sign of a healthy democracy, you may feel alienated and even faintly outraged by the complacent way these evils piled onto the head of nameless Orwellian leader.
The longer it goes on, the more absurd it becomes. The writing degenerates badly after the initial glories: over-reaching in its imagery and more awkward in its rhythms, as thought the text were decaying in sympathy with the corpse of Polynices, Antigone’s brother.
Griffiths’ variations to the plot are mostly baffling. In fact, it wasn’t clear what eventually happens to Antigone in this version, except that she is victimised. The yen to condemn the awful present has toppled all sense of dramatic necessity, so that at times the story feels more like a capricious catalogue of groaning complaints.
Traduttore traditore: but it is interesting how translators of Sophocles all keep sympathy for the traitor Antigone. Jane Montgomery Griffiths has a sympathy which borders on adoration. Is this why she cast herself as Antigone’s antagonist, to reflect herself in the mirror of the beloved?
Surely, if one did want to re-write Antigone for “bleeding heart liberals”, it is Ismene who should get the best part of our sympathies: the one who should be cast as hero. She’s the character who perhaps comes closest to modern sensibilities.
To normalise Antigone, to de-emphasise her religiosity and to bring her into the political mainstream is a terrible, terrible idea. You can’t make her a “bleeding heart liberal” without lopping off something essential in her character. It is not unusual to be in love with Antigone. Many poets have been in love with Antigone. But to love Antigone and then to mutilate her — after your own image, of course — is cruel.
And here, it transforms Thebes into an embarrassing fantasyland. At last, now you are the persecuted one! At last, now you can be a martyr for your compassionate humanism! In this world your ardent belief in the value of all human life, and your willingness to mourn even your enemies, is seen as radical and subversive — even heroic. It can get you killed! Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted? Wouldn’t that salve your nagging guilt, your frustration, your sense of ineffectualness and your disillusionment with democracy?
The absurdity of all this comes through in the casting. Emily Milledge plays Antigone as a puppet. She is carried around everywhere, and when she is brought before the leader for the first time they sit her on a stool where — whether deliberately or not — she looks exactly like a ventriloquist’s dummy, with the body rigid and the head bobbling as she talks. Indeed, at the end of the play they put her in a sort of nappy-like harness and carefully hang her on a hook to the side of the stage, as though the puppet were being put back on her shelf.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Nabben plays Ismene with an almost desperate feeling of authenticity. She whines and wrings her hands and seems much closer to the edge of real madness than Antigone. It’s as though she knew she were the real hero of the piece and was almost boiling over while this wooden imposter is carried into the spotlight.
And over it all looms the Leader. Not just a classicist but also a classically trained actor, Jane Montgomery Griffiths towers above her fellow cast members. Her command of the stage is so complete it’s almost farcical. Her scene with Aaron Orzech — who plays Haemon, the man betrothed to Antigone — is particularly grotesque and lopsided.
Griffiths’ presence is compelling, and the way she plays up to the great charade of the politics of fear, singing her hymn of clichés and lies, is truly fascinating; but the character is too solid; her cause is too singular. She never breaks. Unlike Sophocles’ Creon, she does not falter under the tragic pressure. Instead it is the state itself which begin to come apart, which begin to bleed or liquefy. The leader simply exhausts herself running in circles, unable to feel any grief. It implies soullessness; something you could never say about Creon. In Sophocles’ play there are two people with passionately held beliefs. Here there is only one.
Throughout, the design is very affecting. It makes use of a lot of familiar themes, visual and aural ideas often seen and heard before at the Malthouse, but orchestrated in a new and powerful way. Adena Jacobs has one of the best eyes in the business for arranging bodies in a way that speaks to the palpable mystery of human corporeality. Something similar could also be said of Jethro Woodward. His sound design, for all its post-rock anti-motifs and cinematic largeness, always serves to remind me that the audience shares the same space as the performers, all of us enveloped in the same world of noise.
The Sisters Hayes have produced a set which hides a gory surprise and makes visible the trauma that the secretive organs of state security try to obscure. But is that all that these menacing atmospheres are pointing to?
At times I felt like this production walks a very narrow line between harmless if irritating egotism and something more scandalous and even perhaps offensive. The young white woman hangs herself while in police custody … the activist niece of a powerful politician is despatched to an off-shore processing facility … the empathetic humanist is tortured by the state … and now at last the Melbourne theatre community can understand the tragedy.
Things do get lost in translation. But it’s the things that get added which are most problematic. Where does this figure of the Torturer come from? What sort of idea is that? The chorus has been lost, and perhaps that’s fair enough; but now the whole play has become a bogus chorus, a comment to the original, and a departure, antistrophe in dismal and depressing tones.