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Antigone might have been so much more

Deborah Seddon

The Baxter Theatre in Association with the Grahamstown National Arts Festival
A new version by Sean Mathias and Myer Taub
Directed by Sean Mathias
With John Kani as King Creon and Hanle Barnard as Antigone
Rhodes Theatre at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival
1 to 3 July 2004

In his director's notes, Sean Mathias remarks that his vision for a production of Antigone set and acted within South Africa was of "a visceral experience in the theatre that is potent, raw and angry, filled with tangible anxiety", a production that would contain "all the elements of a third millennium life in a third world country".

His Antigone, which opened at the Grahamstown Arts Festival in July, in many ways succeeds in this vision. Mathias states that his desire to come to South Africa and direct began with a series of workshops with Peter Brook at which he met Barney Simon. Nine years later, having lived in South Africa for some time, Mathias chose Antigone.

The production strives to bring the classic play of one young woman's confrontation with implacable authority into a new century and into an African setting. Thus a landscape of deprivation, poverty and industrial despoliation is dominated by a huge television screen, confronting the audience with contemporary images of the horror of war as the news network, with the rather corny name of TNN, brings the news of the conflict to the people of Thebes. As the war ends, all news coverage also ends, and we are confronted with the vision of the face of one man, King Creon, and his law.

Creon, by implication, is all the inhabitants of Thebes are allowed to see, and the paranoia of a state to control its media is a theme that is cleverly detailed in this production.

Hanle Barnard's Antigone is a warrior in combat attire, fierce and compelling. She gives a strong performance, but one that is lacking in any of the poignant stoicism associated with the character's unflinching devotion to her brother, left to rot without honour or ceremony beyond the city walls.

The play as a whole, and the main protagonist, leave a prevailing impression of angry distress. As the mood is raw and angry from first to last, very little space is thus allowed for an emotional build-up to the final events. With such a well-known story, this is something from which the production finally suffers.

It is saved by Kani's successful underplaying of the king who will not bend his will, not even in the face of the terrible prophecy of blind Teiresias. Creon's horror when he finds that his refusal to yield has caused the death of both wife and son is poignantly portrayed by Kani, finally allowing, in the play's closing moments, for the powerful emotions so necessary to carry the relevance of the story to a new audience.

Taub and Mathias's script strives to make the language contemporary, and at moments its pared-down quality works very well. The chorus is a cacophony of different voices, with no clear message or vision offered for the future. But it is disappointing that the rich heritage of an oral South African tradition, which seems so suited to the classical material, to the telling of prophecies and to the voices of the ancestors - a frequent association in the production - was not more creatively drawn upon. This might have introduced new layers of African culture and spirituality, making for a more interesting mix of traditions and media of story-telling.

The production, for its strong cast, evocative set, splendour, power and presence is quite inadequate emotionally, leaving a feeling finally only of what might have been.

LitNet: 15 July 2004

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