Watching Antigone, any version not just this one, is a bit like launching into a box set somewhere into series 3. An awful lot has already happened, histories and relationships are complicated (her mother was also her grandmother), and bloody (her mother killed herself, her father blinded himself, her brothers killed each other).
Roy William’s version for Pilot Theatre is transposed from ancient Thebes to a contemporary gangland, also called Thebes, where Creo (a powerful, vulpine Mark Monero) rules over a gang of thieves warring against rival gang, the Argives, who were lead by Antigone’s brother, Orrin. Antigone (Savannah Gordon-Liburd) and her sister Esme (Frieda Thiel) work in Creo’s nightclub. The play (sort of) starts with Orrin’s murder by Creo’s soldiers thus pitching Antigone/Tig against Creo, as she tries to bury her brother.
The trouble with retaining some of the history, but not the mythic quality, is that it doesn’t quite add up. Much is made that Antigone and her family are ‘inbreds’ yet there is no sense of how and why her father ended up getting married to his mother; the mention of it raised a laugh on the night I was there. There’s no reason why you can’t play Oedipus for laughs but I don’t think it was the intention here. The gods are referenced throughout the play yet their function and significance were unclear. There was an interesting idea in director Marcus Romer’s notes that the gods are ‘camera observers’, seeing the action through CCTV and social media, who ‘capture and comment’. There is another interesting idea suggest by the soldier chorus at the end that ‘god (singular) is in us’. Neither of these ideas I felt were fully worked through in the production. In some scenes grainy, indistinct live feed video is projected onto the set. This was most effective, and visible, in the scene with Antigone in the celler, capturing and projecting large the image of her in a cage. But who were the observers and what was their moral force or power within the world of the play?
The result is a little bit Game of Thrones (murder! incest! gods! prophecy!) crossed with The Wire, all dark grey urban environment, gang warfare and complex back story. Don’t get me wrong; nothing is more deadly than a traditional, ‘faithful’ version of classical Greek drama. I’ve yawned my way through many a ‘toga and sandals’ production. This version above everything else is not boring. I actually wish William’s and Romer had been able to jettison more of the original and make it more their own. So there were points in the dialogue, particularly in an early scene between Tig and Esme where I could still hear the echo of the stichomythia, a form of argument in symmetrical, alternate lines. This sat a bit awkwardly with the naturalism of the language and performance. It’s not there in the beautifully tender and natural scene between Tig and Creo’s son, Eamon (Gamba Cole), which is William’s own invention.
This Antigone belongs to Creo much more than to Tig. The framing device, which I have to confess I didn’t really get till I read the script, begins and ends with him. Monero gives a phenomenal performance, arrogant, humorous, desperate, and by the end, broken. He is matched in stature by Doreene Blackstock as Creo’s wife Eunice, a part thankfully expanded by Williams. Antigone herself seems more of a foil for Creo; without the mythic structure, she is thrown back onto psychological realism. This meant Gordon-Liburd playing her at a heightened emotional pitch for most of the piece, which she did with full passion and conviction. It was a relief, however, to get to the quieter, playful scenes with Eamon. Joanna Scotcher’s design also offers a nod to classical Greek with its unfinished pillars and motorway arch but is essentially a functional and flexible naturalistic space.
Despite these quibbles there is a lot that is good in the production. In particular, towards the end, there is an extraordinary scene between Creo and Eunice, real edge of the seat, hairs on back of the neck stuff, as they tear into each other with the ferocity of grief, the pent up fury and bitterness of long years of marriage. The soldier chorus, Sean Sagar, Lloyd Thomas and Oliver Wilson, provide quick fire humour, though the business with the riddling picture message (presumably a message from ‘the gods’) was a little lost on me. When I saw it, the cast were occasionally still reaching for those huge turning points between rage and grief, love and despair. But they are fine performances that I am sure will grow and deepen over the course of the run.