New Diorama Theatre
As George Steiner put it in his 1984 study, Antigones, “each production of Sophocles’ Antigone since the first is a dynamic enactment of understanding.” Thus, in her new play, now showing at the New Diorama Theatre, Lulu Raczka is joining a long line of dramatists, poets, philosophers, politicians, composers, choreographers and filmmakers in her re-examination of the classical myth and its relevance in contemporary culture and society.
In Sophocles’ play, Antigone, daughter of Oedipus and sister of Ismene, defies a decree of Creon King of Thebes by secretly burying her brother Polynices. She is sentenced to death. Creon initially disregards the warnings of the blind prophet Tiresias that his actions have disrespected the gods, but when his conflict with Antigone results in the death of his son Haemon and wife Eurydice, he recognises his tragic errors. As the closing chorus of Theban elders informs us, we have seen an old man, through suffering, become wise.
Raczka focuses solely on the two teenage sisters, Antigone (Annabel Baldwin) and Ismene (Rachel Hosker), essentially turning a tragedy, in which significant religious, political and social questions have been raised, into a ‘coming-of-age’ tale.
Lizzy Leech’s effective set, a raised, gold circle filled with soil and ash, perhaps alludes to the circular performance area which housed the wooden ‘stage’ at the first performance of Antigone at the open-air theatre of Dionysus on the hillside of the Acropolis. But, it also suggests confinement, literal and figurative: at the start of the play the two sisters are sequestered within Creon’s house; they are also limited by their place within Athenian social structures and by their fate as determined by the mythic narrative of their family.
At the start, the sisters are themselves semi-buried, reminding us of Antigone’s quest to bestow the burial rites that Creon denies her brother and thereby secure his peaceful rest in the underworld. When the girls emerge, they engage in silent rituals—the sprinkling of water from an earthenware jug, washing of arms and hands—and it seems as if Raczka’s drama will engage with and transform dramatic and philosophical traditions.
Instead, once the duologue gets underway, it’s clear that Raczka’s main aim is to realise inner psychologies which are not revealed, or even relevant, in Sophocles’ text, in order to make her teenage protagonists ‘real’ and not just representative of social ‘roles’. When Sophocles wrote his tragedy, it was a time of prosperity and optimism. Athenians were shaping their own civic and social destinies, but such democracy largely excluded women. Lacking the power and means to ‘act’, Raczka’s Antigone and Ismene instead have to imagine what they might do.
Their favourite fantasy, it seems, is rebellion in the form of heading to a bar. Cue an ear-pounding intrusion of Destiny Child’s “I’m a Survivor” and an outbreak of wild head banging and arm waving. The girls’ grubby tulle dresses are topped with blingy sequined t-shirts and accessorised by sparkly sneakers, their attire an emblem of their dreams perhaps.
Antigone repeatedly hoists up her swishing skirts, tucking them into her pastel pink under-shorts. Perhaps this is to suggest the ‘masculine role’ that she will assume in ignoring sister’s advice and defying Creon’s decree? I found the gesture merely irritating, along with Antigone’s obsessive handstands. The faux ‘playfulness’ seemed misaligned with the seriousness of her mythic duty. It also made it even more difficult to discern the overlapping, breathless rush of repeated, dull colloquial fragments through with the sisters communicated.
That said, Raczka does integrate some allusion to wider mythic contexts: the fate of the sisters’ parents, Oedipus and his mother Jocasta; the curses which have been cast on future generations. And Baldwin and Hosker effectively differentiate between the two young women, Ismene cautious and conventional, Antigone courageous and independent-minded but impetuous. There are longueurs, though: rambling discussions about sex seem to have little to do with the actual challenges that their situation presents. In this regard, the exclusion of the views of the populace—presented by Sophocles through the choric odes of the Theban elders—weakens the moral dimension of the drama, which is reduced to Ismene’s repeated question, “do you care what they think of you?”, and Antigone’s similarly repetitive denial.
There are, however, some moments of striking visual power, as when Antigone hauls Tim Kelly’s circular lighting rig, distorting and disturbing the perspective and clarity, and thus intimating the danger and degree of the revolution that will be brought about by her actions. The sound design (Kieran Lucas) interposes, in turn, the stamp of marching feet, the thump of a disco beat, and the grating, grinding sound of the earth being disturbed as Polynices is buried, or the cave that is to be Antigone’s own grave is dug.
The central weakness of Raczka’s play is that drama relies upon conflict, in this case the opposition of Antigone and Creon, and in excising the latter Raczka’s reduces the tension of the battle-cum-bond between young woman and older man which drives the narrative. Moreover, she denies us the catharsis that may follow Creon’s self-examination and tragic recognition of the rightness of Tiresias’ condemnation and prophesies.
Instead, the play concludes with a lengthy, prosaic monologue by Ismene, outlining her transformation from carefree teenager to wife and mother. Who is the hero here: Antigone, who has sacrificed her life for her convictions, or Ismene who has survived? In the absence of Creon’s punishment and conversion, how can we judge? Though Hosker delivers her final account of love and loss effectively, there is a loss of dramatic focus and a resulting anti-climax. Antigone is destroyed, though her ghost creeps across the rear, listening to her sister’s words.
Rackza has revisited a conflict that has captured the Western imagination for two millennia, but by diluting that conflict to matters of gender and ‘coming-of-age’ she has failed, or neglected, to elucidate its ongoing relevance to, and influence upon, our lives at the start of the twenty-first century.
Reviewer: Claire Seymour