Classical performances are a rare treat on the Central Coast so I was thrilled when I heard Uniting Productions were planning to stage an adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone this month at the Uniting Church hall in Gosford. Director Annie Bilton considers the hall to be an especially appropriate venue for the production. “Greek theatre began as religious ritual in a sacred place,” she explains. “What could be more fitting than to stage it here?”
Sophocles was one of Athens’ foremost dramatists when the city state was at its cultural zenith in the fifth century BC. He wrote over a hundred plays in his lifetime, seven of which have survived complete to modern times. He is best known now for his ‘Theban plays’ – Oedipus the King (or Oedipus Rex), Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone – three individual tragedies that revolve around the story of the ill-fated king and his family.
Cursed by a terrible prophecy, Oedipus is abandoned and subsequently adopted in his infancy. Unaware of his true parentage, he returns to his birth town of Thebes as an adult and unknowingly meets its king, his father, along the road. The pair quarrel, and the fight ends in the death of the older man. Further circumstances lead to Oedipus being crowned as the new ruler, and he marries the widowed Queen Jocasta, his mother. They have four children together before the awful truth of his origin is revealed, and Oedipus is devastated by the discovery. In his grief, he blinds himself and departs into the wilderness leaving his twin sons, Eteocles and Polyneices to fight over succession. Polyneices leads an army against Thebes, and the brothers kill each other in battle. After the invading force is defeated the throne is seized by Kreon, Jocasta’s brother and uncle to the twins.
The action of Antigone concerns itself with the events that follow. It begins just as King Kreon issues a decree that Eteocles will be buried with full honours while the body of the traitor, Polyneices, will be left on the battlefield to rot and become the carrion of birds and animals; defiance of this order will incur the death penalty. The Greeks believed that this decision dishonoured the gods, and denied Polyneices entry to his rightful place in the underworld. It falls upon two sisters, Antigone and Ismene, to decide whether or not they will court death to grant their brother final rest. This sets up the central theme of the play: the conflict between obedience to law and the State, and duty to family and one’s gods. While Ismene is inclined to submit to the former, Antigone determines to serve the latter. Is she destined to die for her loyalties? Or will Kreon listen to the will of the people, and the many voices that caution him to relent before it is too late?
Director Annie Bilton is an accomplished writer, producer and performer, well known here at home and abroad, and earlier this year she acted as Convenor for Woy Woy Little Theatre’s FLASH festival. Her clever adaptation of Sophocles’ tragedy retains the classical flavour of the original text while making its language more accessible to a modern audience, and underscoring the contemporary relevance of its themes. She first produced the play in the US in 2003, in the aftermath of the September 11 violence, when the incumbent President had just declared ‘if you are not with us, you are against us!’ and she felt the prevailing atmosphere of the time was strongly polarized. “Obedience to the State was obligatory, and draconian laws were passed to combat dissent,” she says. “But art has subtle ways of undermining authority and audiences at the US premiere of this Antigone certainly got the point.” Annie says present audiences must decide for themselves what relevance the play might have for Australia in 2014.
The production reflects the simple effectiveness of theatre’s Greek origins. The stage extends into the audience to recreate the in-the-round intimacy of the amphitheatre; the set consists of a hand painted representation of the Theban city wall, and a covered table makes an appearance as an altar toward the end of the piece, otherwise it is left to the text and the actors to create scene and action. This is achieved through stand out performances from all the leads. UP regular Kelli Ward, familiar to local audiences from GMS and Central Coast theatre sports shows, gives as impassioned performance as the heroine Antigone, while her antagonist, King Kreon, is commandingly portrayed by award winning, classically trained actor Paul Russell. Duncan Mitchell, another popular actor seen most often with Wyong Drama Group and winner of Best Actor at this year’s FLASH festival, gives a humorous and sensitive performance as a soldier: a key role that provides comic relief and the point of view of the common man in the street. The voice of the gods is represented through the soothsayer, Tiresias, authoritatively played by another UP regular, Kellie Martin, who also gives a moving performance in the final act as Queen Euridice. Excellent support is provided by Martin Pemberton as Kreon’s son Haemon, Genevieve Neve as Ismene, Tyrone McMaster as a palace guard, and Gary Normyle and Douglas Kent as the Chorus. The performance is enhanced through interesting and thought provoking directorial touches, costuming that is stylish and impressive without being distracting, and a specially written musical accompaniment that lends appropriate gravitas to the piece. The result is an enthralling production that delivers the dramatic impact that is the hallmark of Greek theatre.
The final performances are tonight at 8pm and tomorrow at 2pm and 8pm. Tickets are $15 or $10 for students. To book your tickets now call 0417 223 543.
Don’t forget, UP are always seeking submissions from local playwrights. If you’d like your play to be presented at one their monthly readings, or if you’d like to join as an actor or part of the crew, email email@example.com for more information.