(Nash Theatre)


New Farm Nash Theatre’s production of Sophocles’ great classic comes close to setting a high standard, but doesn’t quite reach it. The production’s main shortcoming is that it does not inspire any gut feelings in the audience in response to the bravery, arrogance and fear of the characters.

In her first scene, Antigone (Jessica Radvan) discusses with her sister Ismane (Carolyn Wagner) whether or not to defy the king’s ban on burying the body of her brother Polyneices, killed in rebellion against Thebes. Antigone faces a horrible dilemma: If she obeys her king, her brother’s ghost will not be admitted to the afterlife. From the very beginning she knows her will is to defy the order, risking harsh punishment. Yet the scene seemed to be more about reciting lines on a page rather than forcing the audience to feel Antigone’s fierce will, Ismane’s fear of death, or Antigone’s contempt for Ismane’s fear.

Radvan improved during the night’s performance. By the time of her speech grieving that she would die unmarried, and regretting the curse that falls upon her as Oedipus’ child, she seemed to feel comfortable with her words and feel them as something her character would say.

Creon (Damian Danaher) brings more meaning to his words. Creon was played in an unusual way. Rather than a physically imposing warrior, he is played as though he is a sensualist. If you take the character of King Herod from the movie of Jesus Christ Superstar, and remove the campy over-the-top parts of the performance to leave just the core of that character, you have Danaher’s Creon.

Even Creon, however, didn’t seem to be either angry or menacing enough to be convincing when he found his orders to not bury Polyneices’ body had been defied. Creon threatens to kill the guard (Josh Tregenza) who brings him the news of Polyneices’ burial unless the guard finds out who performed the burial. Tregenza’s comic asides in this scene worked well, but his fear and Creon’s anger stayed on the stage rather than reaching into the audience members’ hearts and forcing them to react emotionally.

Sets and costumes are stark and simple. In front of a backdrop of the famous mask of Agamemnon flanked by two Greek soldiers, Creon’s plain throne sits on a raised platform at the back of the stage. Two columns stand forward of the throne, and two more are on the floor at the very edge of the stage. Costumes are plain white tunics except for the addition of a plain purple robe for Creon and Eurydice (Wagner), and a red robe for Teiresias (Tregenza), the prophet who warns Creon not to ban the burial of Polyneices’ body.

Chorus members also have painted white faces with triangular black markings over their eyes. The chorus, each whom play more than one part, switch roles by wearing masks in their secondary roles, and this has a genuinely eerie effect when a messenger (Melissa Russo) informs Eurydice of the death of her son Haemon (Nick Piper), Antigones’ fiance, who kills himself in grief at Antigone’s own death. The one other eerie aspect of the play is the original music by Sam Grey.

One interesting aspect of the play to look for is the constantly-expressed fear of women. Many times Creon declares that he will not be defied or ruled by a woman, and at one stage the idea of the anarchy that will overtake Thebes if Creon allows defiance of is orders to stand is called “she”. While this can be seen as expressing the sexist attitudes of ancient Greece, it’s interesting that the attitudes had to be constantly re-stated. If Creon in particular felt secure in his position, he wouldn’t have to keep talking about the danger of a female disobeying him.

Antigone is a hugely ambitious play for an amateur theatre group to attempt, especially when the actors have to learn the pseudo-Shakesperean language of Storr’s 1912 translation. Director Jeff Zayer hasn’t quite led the actors to success in evoking the emotions of the audience, possibly a sign of the limited time any amateur group has to rehearse and get the feel of their characters. Despite this, the dilemmas posed by Sophocles are clearly shown: should we obey the State, the gods or our own wills? Who shall rule? And Sophocles’ words at a time when humans were beginning to reach out with their own power still ring out from New Farm Nash Theatre’s stage:

Many wonders there be, but the most wondrous is man.

Antigone runs at New Farm Nash Theatre until 29th May.

— David Jackmanson
(Performance seen: Fri 7th May 2010)