Why can’t we forget about the Greek tragedies? Some two thousand years on their stories of betrayal and disobedience, possession and murder and (especially in Antigone’s case), conflict between the individual and the state, are still relevant to our culture.
Antigone is one of the most lasting of these ancient plays. Following the Boston bombing in 2013, an essay in the New Yorker likened the plot of Antigone to the heated disputes about where to bury bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body. Recently, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras justified saving the euro by saying Sophocles “taught us with his Antigone that there are moments in which the supreme law is justice.”
The play was originally written somewhere around 400 B.C. by Sophocles, who produced some of the greatest of the Greek tragedies. The plot follows Antigone, daughter of disgraced king Oedipus, attempting to give a proper burial to her brother Polynices after he had been cast out to rot in the sand for betraying his city.
The conflict arises when the king, Antigone’s uncle Creon, finds out what she’s done and does everything in his power to persecute her.
Whether it’s a hideous real-life tragedy or an economic crisis, the tragedians have always been there to remind us that these are universal themes. In addition, the plays of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides et al have always been a voluptuous feast for the senses.
Unfortunately neither of these timeless qualities come with the Malthouse’s latest offering: a production of Sophocles’ Antigone, adapted by and starring Jane Montgomery Griffiths as a Creon-type figure known as “Madam” and Emily Milledge playing a weepy, rarely clothed Antigone.
Dr Griffiths is well versed in the classics. She is currently the director at Monash for the Centre of Theatre and Performance. She has an impressive resume and has done theatre work in both the UK and Australia. A scholar fluent in Ancient Greek, Griffiths said she wanted to create an adaptation “that translates the themes for our contemporary culture.”
Emily Milledge, a young actress making serious waves in the theatre world, has played the lead in the acclaimed Carrie Musical and performed as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. The Guardian has called her the “go-to girl for intense young women”, and so it seems like she, Griffiths and Director Adena Jacobs, long familiar with Greek Tragedies, would be the perfect team for a production of Antigone.
Stepping into the Merlyn Theatre, it was immediately clear that Griffiths and co. were going for a stripped back and minimal aesthetic. Along with set and costume designers The Sisters Hayes, they had created a cold, alienating space. The stage was a slab of concrete, a winch hung—noose-like—to the left, and at the back a staircase led up to a small, windowed office. A single yellow light jutted lit the stage. Occasionally the actors were under spotlights, drenching the rest of the stage in darkness, but overall Paul Jackson’s lighting work did little to bring life to the production’s aesthetic.
Actor Josh Price, playing a peculiar right-hand-man to Griffiths’s Madam, enters, making his way painstakingly slowly down the steps, carrying Antigone’s naked body. The rest of the actors enter wearing garments in various shades of grey, white and black. They all move very, very slowly, like sleepwalkers in a bad cult film from the eighties. On the stage floor they pull down their pants, lift up their shirts and pose.
The original text opens with an outraged Antigone grieving the injustices against her brother. It’s an emotionally charged beginning that dives straight into its riveting plot. It seems as if this production were intent to do just the opposite: alienate its audience and create a spectacle we can gawk at, wondering when the action’s going to start.
The world these characters inhabit is a kind of non-place; it echoes the aesthetics of a German fascist state with washed out colours and tight-fitting formal dress, but it ends up feeling like a humourless Nineteen Eighty-Four parody. The Madam’s dialogue consists of platitudes so unsubtle they’d make a Jedi blush: “Anger is a negative emotion”. Antigone’s responses shoot back at her superiors’ robotic monotones in a quivering whine, stressing passion and feeling: “Humanity demands a different code.”
While the original Antigone was heavily involved with the politics of the time, taking place just outside the city of Thebes, and Bertolt Brecht’s WWII adaptation was inside a Berlin air-raid shelter in 1945, Griffiths’s Antigone might as well be a stage floating through space. Brief mentions are made of the state’s media control and videos of Antigone “going viral”, but there’s little of the “themes for our contemporary culture” its creator promised. Antigone’s prison is referred to as an off-shore containment facility, and there are clear parallels to the inauspicious Australian government, but these come as mere asides and jokes. The play is comfortable making vague declarations about how “tyranny is bad” and governments should have more compassion. But don’t we know this already? Why bring such a lukewarm message to a city whose people pride themselves in standing in opposition to its country’s leaders?
The soundtrack was a grating mix of TV static and metal objects churning in a blender, but there were a few effective aesthetic moments. When Antigone is imprisoned behind black tarps, her sister, played by Elizabeth Nabben, makes a speech about a “new world order” and “the dawn of freedom.” A dark puddle begins to spread over the stage as blood gurgles up from two drains on opposite ends, spreading like a gash across the state’s dictatorship.
The remainder of the play is played out in the ankle deep flood on the stage and it makes for a powerful visual representation of everything that’s gone wrong. Milledge performs well when she emerges from the cave blind, echoing the prophet Teirasias, and she sings beautifully before hoisting herself up on the winch, dying there like a stuck pig, bled out all over the stage.
Antigone had a star-studded cast, experts in control and a beautiful, resourceful theatre. So what went wrong? It doesn’t feel like a Greek tragedy. A play originally so fused with passion and feeling had had the life sucked out of it. In its place was left a tired statement about totalitarianism that hardly feels relevant anymore. And while Griffiths is a fine actor—you can see her face contorting as she struggles to maintain firm leadership in place of compassion—her character seems at times paper-thin and like a caricature of a fascist leader. None of this was helped by Josh Price’s bizarre, mad-scientist’s assistant character whose uncontrollable speech patterns and repeats of terms like “corpse” and “terror”, beating us over the head with political allusions, were too much to handle. At times, it felt as if we were watching a joke the play itself didn’t realise it was on the butt end of.
As the play comes to a close, the Madam is running in circles around the outside of the stage while Price babbles about her son’s recent suicide. She’s trying to get away from the web of madness she herself has spun, but ends up retiring and walking up to the microphone. The soundtrack swells to a cacophony of ugly sounds and Griffiths bellows into the microphone the same speech she began the play with: a eulogy for her fallen son who receives, like Eteocles, “full honours” in death.
It was fitting that the play should end similar to how it began. Its cyclical nature reflected my feeling that it hadn’t really moved anywhere, nor had it progressed the discussion of ancient Greek theatre in the modern age. In the end I was left thinking, what was the point?