In a desolate concrete yard where the only hint of humanity is a prefab building on stilts, a naked young body is dumped on the ground. Malthouse Theatre’s Antigone starts with the Classic story, but it’s not Sophocles’s Antigone but an Antigone for now that’s set in an isolated world where political power is its own reward and where there are no gods to blame or bow to, and no public chorus to witness and comment.
In the 400 BCEs, Ancient Greek playwrights competed in festivals. Filled with reflections and commentary on contemporary society, festivals were the place to hear opinions and figure out your own thoughts about issues. It was a bit like Facebook, but with better spelling. Sophocles won a lot of thumbs up and prizes.
Antigone was the first written but the final of Sophocles’s three Thebean plays (that start with baby Oedipus). The first is the best known being about how Oedipus became King of Thebes by unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother, Jocasta. Jocasta and Oedipus had four children: sons, Polyneices and Eteocles; and daughters, Ismene and Antigone. Antigone followed her blind father into exile. The boys then killed each other fighting to be boss, leaving Jocasta’s brother, Creon, as King who declared that Eteocles was to be honoured while Polyneices was traitorous scum whose body was to rot in the open so the gods couldn’t get his soul.
Antigone (Emily Milledge) wants to bury her brother. Her sister (Elizabeth Nabben) won’t help her, Creon’s son (Aaron Orzech) still wants to marry Antigone, and the unnamed Creon (Jane Montgomery Griffiths) wants Antigone and her defiance destroyed. The leader’s husband is dead (for those wondering what happened to Eurydice) and the observing chorus are replaced by a guard/torturer (Josh Price) whose silence seems guaranteed.
Director Adena Jacobs and the design team (The Sisters Hayes, set and costume; Paul Jackson, lighting; Jethro Woodward; sound) create a bleak and godless world where hope is useless. The concrete is ice cold comfort and Jackson’s lighting asks what’s lurking in the surrounding black. Some of the most striking images come from the anticipation of one image and being confronted with something less gruesome but more horrific, like the revelation of tortured Antigone from behind black plastic sheets.
Montgomery Griffiths’s text knows this story in many translations (including the Ancient Greek, which makes an unforgettable appearance). She rejects the parts she doesn’t need and takes its themes, characters and familiarity to tell a story about now.
It’s set in a country that has secret offshore facilities, known for their torture, and a leader who wears perfect black suits, argues that the state is right because it’s the state, and refuses to listen to arguments, especially those from an angry and defiant young person. Even 12 months ago, this would have been a different play.
The contrast and similarity of Montgomery Griffiths and Milledge is what drives the work. One has power and age and knows she is right; the other has passion and youth and knows she is right. While a middle ground, cover up or lie seems an obvious solution, compromise is impossible for either woman and neither see how their destruction is mutual and far reaching.
Milledge is all contained passion and anger and Montgomery Griffiths uses the confidence of power to hide her doubts. Nabbens shows how Iseme’s inability to act comes from being torn in too many directions, Orzech shows how he is destroyed by trying to defy the woman who loves him for a woman she hates, and Price finds the least uncomfortable space between compliance and “don’t ask”.
There are times when the parallels are too obvious and there’s room to tone down the references to Tones & Co (and I don’t know what the pants pulling down was about), but if now isn’t the time to put these issues to our stages, why do we bother to go to the theatre?