first night


Felix Stevenson revisits a classic.
Considered by many as one of the three greatest playwrights of the classical Greek theatre, Sophocles was renowned not only for advancing theatre as a means to tell a story, but also for improving it. The Theban plays – of which Antigone is one – are considered attestations of his ‘revolutionary’ approach to Greek tragedy. Antigone is, therefore, a classic in its own right and as such Aidan’s College Theatre needed to treat it as one. But they didn’t. Using a reference in the last line of a poorly-contemporised translation by Jean Anouilh, Justin Murray (Director) thought he had the justification to use cards as a running theme throughout the play. But he didn’t. Tasked with performing an arduous script, it was therefore up to the cast to try and remedy such patent problems. But they couldn’t.
As the house lights dimmed and the curtains drew ominously open we were immediately acquainted with Murray’s piece of thematic artistry. With playing cards scattered all over the Assembly Rooms stage and members of the chorus sporting beautiful card designs on their faces, it soon became apparent that this act of gimmickry would be with us for the remainder of the production. Sir Trever Nunn, once Artistic Director for the Royal Shakespeare Company, was historically of the opinion that attempts to add conceptual design to works of a classical nature must be treated with caution, and this was no different. In performing on the Assembly Rooms stage, Murray’s cards had been dealt – but the hand he played was arguably poorly chosen.
There was an ace in the pack, and this came in the form of Izzie Price’s Antigone. Price managed to convey a sense both of fragility and fortitude that was so crucial to her character. For Antigone’s desperate attempts bury the body of her slain brother are as much an act of love towards her lost sibling as they are an act of defiance towards her uncle Creon. Price manages to pull off both sentiments in a subtle manner, and its understatement made her all the more compelling. But while the casting of Price was one of the major successes of the production, the same cannot be said of Nicholas Rooney as Haemon. Never before have I seen an actor so at odds with a role that he has been chosen to play. Haemon, being Antigone’s fiancé, demands a physicality that is embodied in a character that the substandard script even refers to as ‘tough’. Due to no fault of his own Rooney is anything but, which made the casting decision all the more baffling. While Joe Burke’s portrayal of Creon was convincing, his inconsistent accent and jumpy body language were at odds with his obvious talent for storytelling, which was evidenced in arguably the strongest scene when he retold the family’s history to Antigone.
A famous trait of Sophocles’, which made him so distinct from the playwrights of his age, was his particular use of the chorus. It was here that we were graced with the presence of arguably the most bizarre acting duo on offer in the production. David Myers played his chorus part in a natural, conversational manner. His straight talking was, however, totally at odds with his chorus partner Elizabeth Gray. Gray swayed, staggered and even slithered her way around the stage in a manner reminiscent of the chorus in Disney’s Hercules. But while Disney’s animation was controversially considered by some critics to be too narratively dark for its intended younger audience, there would be no controversy in stating the very same for the audience of Antigone – only this time in the lighting department. Using a single bulb to light the minimalist set, which comprised a table and two chairs, you could be forgiven for initially thinking the stage design was atmospheric and suitably claustrophobic, given the nature of the opening scenes. But while the narrative might have changed, the set remained practically the same for the whole production. Using a paper tablecloth does not disguise the fact that the table is still there. Like Lions waiting to be fed in a zoo, the audience were clamouring for a something new to look at, and when this came in the form of another chair, one couldn’t help but give out a little groan. The use of shadows as a means to recount the impending deaths in the tragedy, however, was used to great effect and was a rare artistic success.
Such successes, however, did little to remedy the foundational flaws to this production. It is by no accident that Antigone has become one of Sophocles’ most famous plays. ACT‘s decision to discard many of the themes of this classic – and to add some of their own – was a perilous decision. For as Sophocles once said, “ignorant men don’t know what good they hold in their hands until they’ve flung it away.”
Felix Stevenson

25 January 2013

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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