Oh, this is difficult. I wanted to like this show. I’m constantly complaining about the lack of interesting takes on classical drama, and this production seemed to offer just such a thing, promising to bring Sophocles’s Antigone into the 21st century via the Toronto G20 clashes. Combining a contemporary perspective and an ancient text is the sort of thing that should be my thing, and I was looking forward to Soup Can Theatre’s version. But, alas, I was bored.

In part, I’m happy to blame the space: the Randolph Theatre is a vast cavern with one of the largest stages around — it’s a tough space to fill, and comes with a built-in divide between actors and audience that can be hard to bridge.

But that’s not the real issue here. In my review of Taming of the Shrew yesterday, I talked about directorial window-dressing, and I’m afraid it’s difficult for me to see the G20 stuff as anything but that here. The play opens with Antigone and Ismene’s scene staged in front of a row of menacing figures in minimalist riot gear, figures that approach, slapping their batons, and ultimately kettle Ismene, as Antigone, having been patted down, escapes. The setting of the performance in the context of the G20 — or any other recent clash between protesters and police — is thus immediately and fairly impressively established, even if that means drawing attention away from what precisely is at stake in the discussion between the two sisters. But that’s about as much as director Scott Dermody does with the theme. It largely disappears, and only reemerges in a final, again visually quite striking tableau featuring 99% placards and banners. That’s to say, this is the G20 Antigone at the very beginning and the very end — and in between, it’s just plain old Antigone in modern dress, with some nifty movement work from the chorus thrown in.

I’m sure it would have been possible to construct parallels between modern state brutality and Creon’s arbitrary, if self-satisfied, rule, but that doesn’t really happen here; and the specificity of the references to the Occupy movement distract rather than enlighten, to the extent that they do anything at all. Exactly how is Antigone like an Occupy protester? She’s a king’s daughter betrothed to a regent’s son (i.e., firmly within the 1%) and her transgression is not motivated by politics, but by a deeply personal force — her desperate desire to see her brother buried — or by a religious impulse — the desire to see divine law enforced over and against Creon’s human decree. I wouldn’t have had a problem with a production that adapted the text in order to transform her into a rebel against the system, but Soup Can Theatre’s Antigone never goes so far, leaving frame and content largely disconnected.

In the absence of a compelling angle, though, the show never quite gets going. There are some nice performances — Cydney Penner’s Antigone has a quiet dignity in her grief and rage that should have been allowed more room by the production; Chloe Payne plays a very funny Sentry, even if the physical humour becomes almost too distracting, obscuring the danger of her message; and the chorus is used for some quite beautiful movement work, with the creation of Antigone’s tomb a stand-out moment. But overall, the dialogue often dragged (this could and should have been a much more frantic show), few scenes reached the emotional pitch they needed (Creon’s wrath seemed as tepid as his horror at what he had done, and his son Haemon’s emotional range was similarly muted), and the production never developed the furious drive the play needs to realize the inexorable pull towards disaster that’s central to its plot.

The show’s most moving moment, to my mind, was a mute Antigone in her cell, just sitting in stunned silence. But that’s a problem, too: Antigone has some great speeches in Sophocles (as does Haemon, for that matter), but in this version, unless I’m very much mistaken — I don’t know the play that intimately — they were cut pretty severely, leaving the character(s) without a sufficient intellectual or verbal basis for the emotions some of the cast portray compellingly enough. So in the end, I sat in the cavernous Randolph Theatre, finding few connections between the supposed setting and the play, waiting for the show to pick up the pace, and battling the feeling that instead of trying to drag the play into the historical present, the director should have worried more about theatrical presence. (I should say, though, that the production is getting great reviews elsewhere, so I might just be missing something. It’s rare enough to get a chance to see the classics on stage here, let alone at the Fringe, and I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from seeing the show!)

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4 Responses to Toronto Fringe Diary: Antigone

  1. Julian Munds says:

    Lawrence you have it right. After Anouilh, any earlier and more basic translation is lacking. This production largely and sadly proves, Antonin Artaud right. This is an unfriendly show to the actor mainly because of poor direction. But I have nothing that has not been said better by either Lawrence or Holger. Kudos. You are on the money with this review.

  2. Lawrence Switzky says:

    I agree, Holger, and I’d say that the positive reviews are responding to some good physical theatre work (the assembly-line stripping of Antigone before her immurement, e.g.), the relative level of polish, and the scare wall of prestige that Sophocles merits. I also liked Teiresias as a somewhat embarrassing remnant of the spirit of ’68, though, as you argue, there could have been a much more sustained commitment to the transpositional directorial concept–maybe concerning the different attitudes towards activism between Nanterre/The March on Washington and the Occupy Movement–throughout the production.

    That said, I think there’s a bigger dramaturgical problem here that has to do with staging Antigone at all after Jean Anouilh’s anti-fascist reading of the play. (For the record, I think that Anouilh updates the play with some sophistication–its his successors who have gummed up the works.) The trouble is that if Creon doesn’t have a legitimate claim, or at least the ghost of a claim, then the play doesn’t have any conflict. The first scene of the Soupcan production made me hopeful: you’ll recall that Antigone penetrates the cordon sanitaire of riot police only to be invasively frisked, then saluted by a commander. I thought this was an agile–and briskly theatrical–illustration of the state’s claim to protect us by humiliating, violating, and even endangering us, as anyone who has gone through a TSA checkpoint could testify. The commander isn’t abusing his power–he’s doing his job, and Antigone’s untroubled surrender to his full-body pat-down (and Ismene’s relative unconcern while witnessing that surrender) indicates that she’s not at all unaccustomed to these sorts of technocratic rituals.

    But then, we get a standard authoritarian Creon who has a monopoly on power and political bluster, but nothing like a credible position, and so there aren’t philosophical or emotional stakes. For the play to work, unless it becomes a masque or morality play, we can’t believe that Creon is entirely wrong or that Antigone is entirely right. The play is about a genuine crisis in the life of the state: the decoupling of personal and civic obligations, the severing of law and its legitimacy (in this case, it’s a religious legitimacy that might be troubling to contemporary Canadian audiences, though we have to believe that the funeral rites aren’t a disposable concern that stands for some broader allegory of the individual vs. power that Antigone simply doesn’t have time to articulate). Any production of Antigone has to labor mightily to transport an audience past the sanctimonious prejudices that it might otherwise bring to this play. For example, the Antigone-Haemon love plot is an almost insurmountable obstacle. Young love has an absurdly inflated claim on theatrical sympathy, even (especially?) love among the plutocrats. But would most members of the electorate countenance love as an excuse for honoring an enemy of the state? Wouldn’t we be at least as intolerant of insurgency that threatens the status quo than the Athenian polis? I had trouble hearing some of the speeches in this production, but the most affectingly delivered of Antigone’s counter-claims, at least in her delivery, was that she owes more to the dead than to the living, since she’ll be spending most of eternity with them. I’d bet that even some more progressive members of the audience would construe this as a kind of Jihad.

    I’m departing into my own frustrated flights of directorial fancy. My point is that this is still a provocative, unsettling play–and it was disappointing to see a production that wanted to take the easy way out rather than show us how potent a mirror Antigone still is.

    • Lawrence Switzky says:

      Yikes, I accidentally hit post before looking back over what I’d written. Forgive the goofy grammar.

  3. Mark says:

    This is interesting to a London reader in the context of the Antigone at the national theatre right now which I thought was nearly flawless in its ideas and execution – modern day kind of Creon as Blair with stuff about spin doctoring etc – but which left me kind of flat. The most powerful moment I thought was the tiresias scene who they play as not modern day at all. It made me wonder whether Sophocles can ever really successfully translate to modern day. If you lose the kind of primal archaic strangeness of it, you lose what’s best about it?

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