Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, October 8
This is the best Antigone I have seen, and no one who loves theatre should miss it. Sport For Jove’s Damien Ryan may have freely adapted the text, but in so doing he has arrived at a play that is frighteningly true to how Sophocles wanted his audiences to be affected.
The word empathy comes from the Greek empatheia. In the single greatest revolution in the history of drama Sophocles sought to makes his audiences feel the emotions of those depicted on the stage: their pain, their desolation, their hopelessness. His characters found themselves trapped in moral malaises from which there was no escape, and the feelings and reactions of those watching were stretched upon the same rack until, hopefully, they experienced a catharsis. But the journey towards that ideal of spiritual renewal and emotional exhilaration had to be paved with tears.
“Relevance to modern audiences” has become the hateful catchphrase poisoning the way so many plays are treated in Australian theatre. From the Greeks to Shakespeare to Chekov and even on to Tennessee Williams plays are routinely bastardised by wannabe “star” directors seeking to make a mark; directors who commit the cardinal sins of failing to trust the eternal and genuine relevance of masterpieces and of failing to trust their own audience’s intelligence.
In fiddling with Sophocles’ text Damien Ryan (adaptation and co-director) and Terry Karabelas (co-director), by contrast, have done no more than let a modern audience experience the emotional turmoil an Athenian audience might have felt 2,400 years ago. The first key change is that the two brothers, Polynikes and Eteocles, who have killed each other before the play begins, are no longer rivals for the Theban throne, but warriors for rival causes. Polynikes has been converted to some fundamentalist ideology that embraces terrorism, and Eteocles has fought to save Thebes from this onslaught. Thus the issue is scalding hot when Creon decrees Polynikes’s body must rot or be devoured rather than be properly buried, and Antigone is helpless to feel anything but love for her dead brother; to feel anything other than that he at least has a right to be interred.
The other change may rock purists rather more, and that is that Ryan has introduced humour to this sad, grotesque and angry play. He has made the sentry (Janine Watson) a comic character, and a very funny one at that. The upshot is that these interspersed moments of light relief allow the tragedy to darken and deepen without becoming so relentless that we become immune to the plights not just of Antigone, but also of Ismene, Haemon and Creon, himself.
And relentless it could have become, because the anguish is often so real that you feel an ache not just in your heart, but deep in your bones, as if the whole foundation of your being is being shaken by witnessing events too horrible for any human to manage. Making the production so compelling are some towering performances in a cast without a hint of a weak link. Andrea Demetriades’ Antigone is by turns feisty, loving, wilful and passionate, while being morally unwavering and then able to shatter like a beautiful stained-glass window. William Zappa’s creates of Creon with the hard-as-granite front of the born leader, choking off the churning pit of self-doubt within; a Creon who disintegrates in the knowledge that his judgement has been so wrong that he hast cost the life not just of Antigone, but of his beloved son Haemon. Jospeh De Re creates a real, likable and compelling Haemon, and Louise Mignone makes for a languorous and guilt-ridden Ismene. In an imaginative piece of casting Anna Volska is a wry, detached Tiresias, and Deborah Galanos becomes the chief surgeon in a bombed-out hospital as Eurydice, Creon’s devastated wife.
Ryan has the chorus scored to function alternately as a collective and as individual voices, and the effect of the precision of the unison passages is sometimes enough to give one goose-bumps. Fiona Press, Marie Kamara, Elijah Williams and Thomas Royce-Hampton complete the cast. The latter is the main player of a battery of drums, cymbals, gongs and bells that are used to detonate punctuations in the play, their sounds often frosted with extravagant echo in Bryce Halliday’s striking sound design.
Sport For Jove has tended to cast its productions largely from a fairly finite pool of players, but Antigone breaks that mould completely, and from an open field of A-listers the casting is imaginative and astute in equal measure.
Another new face is designer Melanie Liertz, whose war-ravaged cityscape has a certain malignancy about it that fills one with foreboding from the moment one enters the theatre. Her costumes are simple, dust-caked affairs, and the whole is illuminated to often thrilling effect by lighting designer Matt Cox.
Sport For Jove, usually Sydney’s most consistent theatre company, has had a topsy-turvy year with the production of Away a few months ago its weakest-ever show. Here SFJ redeems itself, not just with the best Antigone you may see in a lifetime, but with a new high-water mark in the company’s history.
Until October 22.