Antigone vs. the world

Liisa Repo-Martell makes for a bewitched and bothered Antigone
Liisa Repo-Martell makes for a bewitched and bothered Antigone
Jean Anouilh wrote Antigone in code. His version of the Sophoclean tragedy about the princess who defied temporal authority in the name of an ancestral morality was premiered in 1944 in occupied France. It could hardly not be seen as a parable of resistance to the Nazis. To protect himself, and probably in accordance with a dramatic instinct to balance the scales, Anouilh allowed his tyrant-figure a very good case. Creon, king of post-Oedipal Thebes, has declared that the body of Polynices, one of Oedipus’ sons, be left unburied. Polynices and his brother Eteocles had killed one another in battle, and since Polynices was attacking Thebes at the time and Eteocles was notionally defending it, the latter got the funeral honours and the former got the dogs and vultures. Greek mythology held that the souls of those left unburied would wander in misery ever after. Antigone, the brothers’ sister, is determined to prevent this, and steals out to sprinkle some earth on the corpse. She’s caught, and brought before Creon. Their confrontation is the heart, soul and pulse of the play.

Anouilh’s Creon is no Nazi; he is, at worst, a Vichy bureaucrat, trying to make the best of a very bad job. People always claim that the original Sophocles play holds the balance equally between Antigone and Creon, but I’ve never been able to see it; Sophocles seems to me to be on Antigone’s side from first to last; his Creon is both blinkered and cruel. Anouilh’s Creon takes an avuncular tack, telling Antigone to go back to bed and let him cover up her job of pious covering. She isn’t having it. So he tries logical argument. He points out the futility and cynicism of the traditional funeral ceremonies. He says, very believably, that both the brothers were scoundrels who broke their father’s heart and that he doesn’t even know which body was which; he simply buried the more presentable one. Antigone is convinced. But then Creon overplays his hand, welcoming her to the real world of accommodation and compromise. Antigone is revolted.

The new Soulpepper production uses the 60-year-old English translation by Lewis Galantière but seems to have worked it over in rehearsal. (The original plan was for the company to do its own version of the Greek play, rather than Anouilh’s.) Soulpepper, under Chris Abraham’s direction, has roughened, shortened, sharpened (at least in theory) and, I think, weakened it.

This Antigone pours scorn on Creon’s idea of “life” and opts for death – for its own sake, apparently. It’s Antigone as jihadist, though as suicide-burier rather than suicide-bomber. This accentuates a fatal flaw in Anouilh’s play. The original French audience might have made a mental leap, identifying the heroine’s defiance with that of their own fighters against hopeless odds. Today, though, we’re left with a character who’s been stripped of the religious convictions that motivated her ancient prototype and who protests, as somebody once memorably put it, “just because.” This doesn’t stop the play from being a riveting case study, but it doesn’t make it a tragedy. Which wouldn’t matter if Anouilh, through the mouth of his one-man Chorus, didn’t keep insisting that it is.

Creon wins. He certainly does here, in a magisterially careworn performance by R.H. Thomson, who’s found a place at which wit and weariness meet. If the play is a tragedy, it’s his (and Anouilh certainly allows for this); he has flawed beliefs, which he articulates, on which he acts and for which he suffers. Liisa Repo-Martell’s Antigone – bewitched, bothered and bedraggled – makes him a compelling adversary; their incompatibility registers very strongly. She’s moving, too, when she confronts her end. But she’s vocally muffled, a fault that afflicts the whole production up until the big duet.

Lorenzo Savoini’s stern panelled set and abrasive lighting give the show a promising shell, though the wall of surveillance screens is already a cliché. We’re always being told that video on stage is necessary to make young audiences feel at home, but I think it’s more a matter of letting the grown-ups play with the kids’ toys. Perhaps in the hope of engendering tension or at least suggesting doom, nearly everyone speaks in a fast monotone. This irons out the naturalistic character detail that’s one of the playwright’s strongest suits. Maggie Huculak’s nurse, who should be the voice of worried normality, is here a neurotic scold, while Claire Calnan, as Antigone’s glamorous sister Ismene, is allowed no personality at all. (Her name gets a French pronunciation while everyone else’s is done English. There’s a similar confusion in Stratford’s Phèdre. It should be one thing or the other.)

The best of the supporting performances are Jeff Lillico’s everyman guard, though even he gets a bit flattened out, and Jordan Pettle’s Haemon, boyishly crushed between being Creon’s son and Antigone’s betrothed. David Storch’s chorus veers between being a commanding ironist and an unaccountable pixie. The production obviously knows what it’s about, but for too much of the time, barring Thomson’s performance and all who sail with or against him, it isn’t about the play.

– Antigone runs through Oct. 17 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. For show times and ticket information, call 416-866-8666 or visit
(source: national post)


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