Directed by Damien Ryan and Terry Karabelas
Written by Sophocles
October 6, 2016 to November 12, 2016
HOW DO THE UNWRITTEN LAWS OF PERSONAL CONSCIENCE SURVIVE WHEN SET AGAINST THE LAWS OF A SOCIETY AND A NATION?
Antigone is a child of war, like too many in our world. She asked a simple question thousands of years ago that remains too difficult for us to answer even to this day, as so many recent events have demonstrated. What do we do with the body of a terrorist, a murderer, who has brought destruction, death and horror to our community when that terrorist is our brother. Our own flesh and blood?
Like Hamlet, Joan of Arc, Galileo and Sir Thomas More, Antigone inspires us with her courage, fortitude and impenetrable strength of conscience. But her excess of feeling and fundamentalist zeal are hard to reconcile in a world crying out for unity, order and the rule of law in a time of chaos. Her uncle, Creon, selflessly places his state above the welfare of his family, pursuing a principle with the sort of consistency of will that we cry out for in politicians who so often stand for nothing. Where is justice between these extremes? Antigone stands against the monolith and brings her society to a reckoning it sorely needs.
An exciting new adaptation by Damien Ryan of Sophocles' great play, starring the wonderful Andrea Demetriades, William Zappa, Anna Volska, Louisa Mignone, Deborah Galanos, Fiona Press, Joseph Del Re, Elijah Williams, Janine Watson, and Thomas Royce-Hampton, co-directed by Damien Ryan and Terry Karabelas.
"With august gesture the god shows us how there is need for a whole world of torment in order for the individual to produce the redemptive vision." - Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
The theme of the individual conscience struggling against the power of judicial law and the state is eternal and inspirational. The loss of political balance into extremism and groups that kill for their own moral or religious law is terrifying. That they are both essentially the same story at their core is perhaps why Sophocles’ play asks challenging moral questions of any society, both of its government and the individuals it serves.
Two millennia since it first played in an Athenian amphitheatre, Antigone has become an increasingly strange story, with an ugly and macabre synopsis – in burying a criminal’s body that her uncle wishes to leave rotting in the sun, a young girl brings herself and her state to its knees. And yet it touches a very modern nerve.
Sophocles captures a burning moral question that has intensified every year since he wrote it. How do we reconcile our hatred and fear of those who seek to hurt us, and how should we punish our enemies? The play is not purely about burying a body, it is about how we bury our own hatred, how we resolve it, salve it, cure it, perhaps even forgive it and reconcile it back to peace. And perhaps the tragedy is that it’s impossible. Perhaps? In an interview I made with a soldier about how he feels about his enemies in a conflict zone, and about the possibilities of forgiveness and honour in death, he said, “We can all promise to bury the hatchet, but we remember where we buried it.”
When Sophocles wrote this play, there were people in his audience who had seen the advent of democracy in their own lifetime – not just any democracy, but the first the world had ever known. It was that new. It’s an extraordinary thought for those of us lucky enough to have grown up in stable western democracies today. And yet, for people living in the many infant and failed democracies of the 20th and 21st Century - some found through peaceful political evolution, most through conflict, coupe d’etat, or the intervention of superpowers - the experience of witnessing the birth of a democratic promise is probably as extraordinary as it was for Sophocles family. This most fragile of political ideals came to Athens only decades before Sophocles plays first came to the stage. It was different model to our understanding of democracy, and was of course a purely patriarchal vision of political equality, it was no democracy for the female half of the human species. But, notwithstanding, it was a form of ‘direct democracy’ - demos – from the people. We now have a complex representative democracy that is as difficult to define as it is to live in.
5th Century Athens and 21st Century Australia appear to me to be confronting the same difficulty - of maintaining effective and practical democracy in the face of infinite compromise and the ever-present threat of corruption. Democracy is a system of governance intended to ensure a community and the individual’s within it have some control over their fate or political destiny. Antigone deals in the fear that the democratic machinery of power is ceasing to function properly, failing to represent the unwritten laws of conscience that form the basis of an actual individual life and the fabric of a community, toppling us into sometimes subtle and sometimes tangible forms of political oppression. Creon begins to reject the advice of his chorus and the views of his polis; leaving his people to feel they aren’t ‘citizens’ of their own state. Our media, social media, public and private spaces and workplaces are engaged in this argument every day, on a dozen different issues, some matters of life and death, some purely of principle.
In terms of the context of his own society in 5th Century Athens, it can be argued that Sophocles sought to save Athens from a moral destruction which seemed imminent. Sophocles spent his artistic career warning his countrymen about hubris, or over-weaning pride and arrogance. Athens’ proud rivalry with the warlike state of Sparta would come to a head around 11 years after Antigone was written with the onset of the Peloponnesian War - the beginning of the end for the Greek empire. Within a century, the world’s greatest civilisation was in collapse.
Sophocles’ audience sat in the open air in 441 BC to watch a story unfold, one they knew well – a part of the great Oedipus myth - in a city called Thebes, not a democratic state at all but a city under martial law and monarchy. Democracy however was the undeniable focus of what they witnessed and Sophocles knew it, it was the essential undercurrent with which his audience engaged – it was not the setting of the story but the very nature and action of the play itself - dialectic argument between characters, the voice of the weak challenging the power of the strong, moral debate, social and political concepts of right and wrong, justice and mercy, being thrashed out before them through words. Theatre is the tool of democracy in action. We do not see any of the ‘events’ of the play. We do not see bodies buried or brothers die, or sons take their own lives before their father’s eyes, we hear the discussion and morality that lead to those events or emerge from them. A quasi-legal argument between opposing, irreconcilable forces – in an impromptu and utterly unforgiving courtroom.
Our production takes the same shape, a focus on words and the ‘agon’ – or arguments of the characters – above all else. The clash of equal ethical claims over an issue that has not gone away over two millennia and probably never will. Nor has the human cost of warfare.
We’ve seen it across the cities and conflict zones in Aleppo, Iraq (Mosul particularly with the siege of ISIL), Turkey, Syria, Egypt, South Sudan, Pakistan and within the United States. Our designer Melanie Liertz has investigated these tortured spaces in her approach to what a modern Antigone or Thebes, emerging from devastating conflict into a new moral nightmare, might look like.
Two million people in and around Aleppo are currently without water, and the access to it has now become one of the chief weapons in the conflict, a sure-fire killer, starvation and thirst. Mosul in Iraq was a modern city returned to the stone-age in 2014/15 by the intensity of the conflict there. No power, no hot water, no electricity, no social services. Sophocles was a general and a war poet and he wrote a story in which a city of people awake from the horror of an utterly devastating civil conflict to celebrate something as simple as seeing the rays of the sun and feeling it on their faces. In a contemporary setting, we have explored a city returned to an almost primitive state where the only way they can resolve a heated moral dilemma or achieve government and strategy is for the ‘King’ to come down in person to the public square and talk to his people, without even the help of a microphone, asking to be heard, relying purely on words to restore order to the chaos. And in the heat of that public square, over 24 hours of one day, we see a community come to terms with the laws of the living and the dead. Within that world, a chief desire in the writing was to spend time with the women in this story, to hear a chorus of women engage with the political future of their state and to foreground the roles of the key women in the story in a more prominent form than the ancient drama allows for.
And while it is a whole new play we have devised, the only real significant shift in dramaturgy is to remove the notion of the two dead brothers being Kings (Polynikes and Eteocles) fighting over their right to the Theban throne. In our story, Polynikes is a young man, brother to Antigone, who has joined the enemy, become entangled with a violent, fundamentalist ideology and sought to destroy his own state, rather than a King wanting a throne back. So our story centres on a leader who makes a zero tolerance law about the burial of his nephew, a terrorist, only to find his own niece becomes the subject of his new law. An ancient public argument, played out on a destroyed modern street. It is a story as much about growing up, and about what seeds human violence as it is about that violence itself. In Australia, as in any other country experiencing the new phenomena of 15 year old boys taking up weapons and gunning down police employees on a Parramatta street or chartering small boats to travel from northern Australia to fight with ISIL through the influence of internet chatrooms, the community must understand its role in the increasing disillusionment and vengeance of young men particularly. The UN has recently declared that the child soldier is the most dangerous modern instrument of war. How are we failing our children? And can we see any responsibility at our own feet?
Australian theatre-maker and commentator, Alison Croggin, drew a powerful connection to Antigone recently: “A grim drama played out on the Habur border between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. Amid simmering tensions between Ankara and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, a truck carrying the bodies of 13 Kurdish men and women killed fighting Islamic State was refused permission to cross into Turkey, where grieving relatives were waiting to bury their dead.
In searing 50 degree heat, distraught families protested against the government for 10 days, until finally the government relented and let the truck through. ‘I want my son to have a grave,’ said Abdurrahman Pusat, the father of one of the fighters. ‘He is a citizen of Turkey and not any other country.’
The passions unleashed on that border are a contemporary enactment of the conflicts of Sophocles’s tragedy, Antigone. Here, written in new blood, is the profound need to mourn the dead, pitted against the stark authority of the state; the questions of what it means to be a citizen, and what it means when citizenship can be revoked, even in death. The Turkish opposition leader might have been quoting Antigone herself when he said, ‘People have the right to demand respect for their dead, no matter how they have died.’
An incitement to developing a new production of Antigone struck me while listening to a National Public Radio broadcast a couple of years ago. Journalist Deborah Becker reported that:
“A funeral director in Massachusetts cannot find a burial plot in American soil for the slain perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombing, no cemetery has agreed to accept it. The bodies lies rotting in the nondescript Graham, Putnam and Mahoney Funeral Parlor in Worcester, Massachusetts. Protesters are gathered outside, angry that parlour has taken in the body. The Government has refused to step in. There are some efforts to send the body back to Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s family in Russia. Twenty-nine-year-old Jennifer Marchand says Tsarnaev doesn’t deserve a burial, ‘I don’t feel bad for nobody else because they deserve nothing more than to be fed to the sharks.’
Graham, Putnam and Mahoney has a long history of providing funeral services for the indigent,” said Becker. “It’s also one of the few Massachusetts funeral homes that does Muslim burials. The funeral home owner, Peter Stefan, says several local cemeteries have refused to bury Tsarnaev. Officials in Cambridge, Massachusetts where Tsarnaev lived say burying him there ‘would not be in the best interest of the city’. Tsarnaev’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni from Maryland, said that ‘soil’ belongs to no one and everyone deserves a burial. Peter Stefan says ultimately his funeral home is responsible for the body, so he wants to make sure it is buried. Stefan said, ‘I want to know for a fact that once I get him there, that someone’s going to do something and bury him, not go back and forth and hold the body there because he’s a terrorist or whatever they want to call him. I don’t know that if I’m not there. I’m not just going to send the body out. I don’t care who it is. This isn’t what we do.’ He has been asked about burial at sea and he says, he can’t provide that. ‘If the government wants to do that, that’s great. They did it with Osama bin Laden. If that’s what you want to do, go ahead and do it. But they’re going to do it, not us.”
The report was remarkable and a direct demonstration of how a citizen body might agree with the political symbolism of a leader like Creon refusing to put the ‘hated dead’ in the ground. When the body was eventually buried in the earth, it was dug up by a furious community and had to be secretly reburied elsewhere.
The events of Sophocles play point to the pathetic fragility of human institutions and the unknowable nature of what we once called the Gods, some still call God, and others simply call instinct or morality - reminding us that there are higher principles at work than are reflected in our constructs of human justice or ‘written law’. In Sophocles’ play, the gods embody destiny and dispense justice according to their own capricious code.
In the theatre, it seems to me the challenge lies in our willingness to recognise that conflicting ideas, and terrible events such as death, suffering and catastrophic change, form part of a pattern, a pattern reflecting the workings of the unknowable, irrational nature of human affairs – the things we once lay at the feet of the ‘Gods’ – and while it is very hard for us to know what is ‘right’, what we can learn is that communication and free discussion are the only road toward any form of understanding about why we suffer so terribly in the act of living. The Gods do not act ‘justly’ in a human sense, but nor do they act arbitrarily or unintelligibly. Their perfect knowledge is set against the inevitably limited knowledge of mortals, who may bring disaster on themselves while acting with the best of motives. Indefinable ideas of justice and human morality, right and wrong, individual conscience play out in front of us in Antigone, who asks us to pick our way through that enigma to see where we, as members of a citizen body, believe we stand.
Tragedy’s intention is to remind us we are alive. The creative act is by definition a political act when the convention is ‘tragedy’. It is a communal act, where the Chorus is perhaps the central character, seeking to renew our respect for life, for the obligations of living; the personal, social, cultural, political, spiritual duties of “living well”. Being true to ourselves but never simply for ourselves. Regardless of what ‘religious’ model it reflects, it is serving a fundamental instinct for the awareness of something greater than ourselves, something uncontrollable, incomprehensible but absolute. Our ‘god impulse’ – our internal conflict between “theos” and “polis”. In other words, tragedy asks us ‘what are our duties as human beings, as opposed to our duties as citizens or members of a state?’
Each generation curates a new way to see the world, new filters, especially for the most intractable and difficult ideas about living. It’s interesting the way a play like Antigone has changed in its perception over the millennia. By the 20th Century, Creon had become almost automatically the villain, and Antigone had become a Joan of Arc figure, the righteous underdog, the conscience-driven heroine who refuses to submit to the new law, buries her brother, and dies at the hands of her autocratic uncle, the King. Antigone has steadily become a tragic victim in our desire to read stories in the Hollywood vein, a powerful feminist totem fighting against oppression, a great revolutionary fervour crushed, rather than the excessive fundamentalist whose pride and ferocity would have disturbed Sophocles’ audience as much as it did Creon in 441BC. The play of course, by its end, does ask us to acknowledge Antigone as more ‘right’ than Creon, so perhaps that’s inevitable.
The moral altercation at the heart of this play – what we do with the bodies of those we hate - when played out on a human level every day somewhere on earth, is terribly difficult to resolve, especially when, for some people, it ceases to be an abstract dilemma. What do the families of the people who died at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, or the over 300 maimed and permanently injured, make of young Antigone’s ‘heroism’? Antigone continues to be a subversive and powerful play, inspiration for generations of rebels and dissidents, because its meaning can be inspiring or disturbing, depending on which ‘gods’ and which interpretation of religious law you choose to exemplify through action. Religious extremism, righteousness and fundamentalism are the buzzwords of modern armed conflict and are a direct example of the tension between human and divine law. Religious extremism is literally a case of objecting to and defying the accepted and legislated laws of a society or nation and following instead a ‘God’s law’ which overwhelms judicial law in the eyes of the fundamentalist. Of course, fundamentalism and terrorism are two completely separate modes of belief and action, but most modern terrorism is based on fundamentalist principles which refuse to recognise judicial law. To a terrorist - war, murder, suicide bombings - are part of a commitment to restoring a divine order and rejecting the economic, political and therefore ‘man-made’ power of nations such as America, Australia, Britain, Germany, Paris, and many others, including those who are not members of the global aristocracy. The terrorist is following a moral duty, a point of conscience and acting as a vehicle of God’s retribution on earth. And conversely, the nation who responds to that terrorism stands by its version of God and justice when punishing, waging war, incarcerating or refusing to bury the perpetrators. Where is true justice? Does it exist?
Warfare is asymmetrical today - no longer armies lined up across plains awaiting a call to charge, it is an horrifyingly unpredictable reality for every person on earth now. Death and catastrophe can come from within our own communities, at the most inconspicuous moment, into our cafes, public spaces, homes, transport systems, even in a time of ‘peace’. The political voice today is obsessed with symbolic speech and action in response to the random fear that governs us. I stood with my children at an public event in Sydney recently and found myself gazing into the large crowd and thinking what an easy target we all were in that moment and where I would run with my children if ‘something happened’ – if a ‘tragedy’ took place.
Tragedy on stage though is a highly organised reminder of our self-limitation. There is just so much we don’t know. How do we decide what we believe in and how many of us have the courage to live by it?
"The result is a not-to-be-missed production of unrelenting force, confronting, challenging our notions of justice, setting the individual power of love against the might of the law and ultimately questioning the very nature of human existence."
"★★★★½ Extraordinarily powerful theatre that feels urgent and timely, yet timeless. "
Jo Litson | Limelight Magazine
"Whether for an aficionado of new takes on the classics or as a sight-unseen experience in soul-rending, intellectually stimulating modern drama, this play is a must-see, and carries my highest possible recommendation."
"★★★★★ This newly penned adaptation, also from Ryan, maintains all the lyrical eloquence of the original while making it heartrendingly current, delving into the discourse of the ideological minefield of extremism in the age of terror."
Shaun Colnan | The Music
Photography by Marnya Rothe
Andrea Demetriades | Antigone
Anna Volska | Tiresias/Chorus
Deborah Galanos | Eurydice/Chorus
Elijah Williams | Boy Soldier (elder)/Chorus
Fiona Press | Leader of Chorus
Janine Watson | Sentry/Chorus
Joseph Del Re | Haemon/Chorus
Louisa Mignone | Ismene/Chorus
Marie Kamara | Boy
Thomas Royce-Hampton | Solidier/Chorus/Percussion
William Zappa | Creon
Bryce Halliday | Sound/Technical Design
Christopher Tomkinson | Stage Manager
Damien Ryan | Co-director
Matt Cox | Lighting Designer
Melanie Liertz | Designer
Rosalind Bunting | Scenic Artist
Scott Witt | Movement Director
Terry Karabelas | Co-director