The drama, ‘Antigone, the Burial at Thebes’, being offered at Belvoir, is suggested as an ‘interpretation’ of Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’ not a translation of the original. It is not ‘the text or … the criticism surrounding it, but the words and rhythms of another work entirely.’ (Heaney). In this work playwright, Seamus Heaney heard the ‘stricken urgent note … for the anxious, cornered Antigone at the start of the play’ and it galvanised him into this work. It was apparently inspired by the events that led to the invasion of Iraq. We however are left with the work on the page as interpreted for the stage by the present company, superbly directed by Chris Kohn.
It is a brilliant interpretation but unmistakably the work of Sophocles and that is very important. While Kohn comments in his notes that Sophocles spoke to an audience ‘thousands of years departed from [us] … of a different epoch’ it is the very nature of the Greek tragedy as defined by Aristotle in his ‘Poetics’ that ensured they wrote not for the Greek audience but for all men for all time. That is why it is a timeless piece of drama; it is why it speaks so urgently to us today.
When Heaney heard Antigone’s opening words, ‘What is to become of us, why are we always the ones?’ it was certainly directed to an audience accustomed to a different form of theatre than that of today but the audiences remain very closely related through time in nature. The theme of ‘Antigone’ is not constrained by the events that supposedly take place in the story but by the outcome of the argument that logic presents through the actors personifying what is put in the propositions.
Greek tragedy is first and foremost a debate. It plays out the contrived events that illustrate its concepts in a surreal situation and hopefully thereby leads its audience to a better understanding achieving ‘catharsis’ (Leon Golden, ‘Catharsis’, 1962). How successful the dramatist ultimately had been was registered by the audience’s response in its conviction. The success of Sophocles in the competitions at Dionysia as mentioned in the notes attests to debating skills or aptitude in logic rather than good storytelling. According to Aristotle that was what tragedy was all about.
In this respect ‘Antigone’ probably stands supreme among the so called ‘Theban’ plays. The reason it opened the Oedipus trilogy when it’s events plainly deal with the story’s conclusion presages the sophist’s argument. The premise appears to be that to apply deductive reasoning through the postulation of a ‘polluted’ premise is to ultimately reap the whirlwind. To personify this esoteric proposition the play ingeniously contrived to introduce four siblings of an incestuous union representing the ‘polluted’ ‘factors’ within the logic.
The term comes to the English as ‘cross over’ or ‘cross back’. In breed lines to reintroduce the original sire into the line is referred to as ‘double cross’ or ‘inbreed’ which has been figuratively extended in a socio political sense to mean ‘betrayed’ in the first instance and ‘stupid’ in the second. This is possibly why the Cretans got such a bad name from St Paul. The Greeks referred to them as having been inbred, presumably as a result of it being a small island but in translation it read as being stupid. The children of Jocaster and her son, Oedipus, are therefore the results of a ‘double cross’. The playwright then goes on to contrive the setting that results from Eteocles’ ‘double cross’ of his brother, Polyneices by refusing to stand down at the end of his term in office as prescribed by the now deceased king, the boy’s father and half brother. This provoked war and the death of both brothers at each other’s hands.
By the time the syllogism is set up for the audience it would have been in no doubt as to the underlying logic of the argument. It is expressed by Creon as ‘only citizens of Thebes are entitled to burial, citizenship is predicated on loyalty to Thebes therefore any person disloyal to Thebes should be denied burial’. It would appear to be an unexceptionable syllogism for the audience of the day but its major premise is flawed since it is subjective probably being itself a product of deductive reasoning. It immediately exposes the inherent injustice since it was Polyneices who was originally wronged by his brother yet it’s his body that’s now to be left out in the cold. The story that Sophocles has his players play out before their audience is the tragic consequences that it is asserted must flow inevitably from the application of such flawed logic.
Just as Shakespeare, some two millennia later, would look back to these same Greek dramatists in crafting his flagrantly political work, ‘Titus Andronicus’, so these Greek dramatists were themselves looking back to their own classical time, their own ‘Golden Age’. In trying to glean pathways to truth they had devised the process of deductive reasoning and developed it into what came to be known as Aristotelian logic. The play proposes a false premise and then sets up the antagonist, Antigoni, to prove it wrong through a valid syllogism of her own.
The genius of the construct can be readily attested to by the fact that its understanding of the basic fallacy in the application of this form of logic continued to be resisted until Frege articulated the concept of multiple generality in the nineteenth century.
In this production Heaney and Kohn have joined with a magnificent ensemble of actors to render a play that in every way delivers on the aspirations of Sophocles’ original work. The language is beautifully constructed, its rhythms precise and defined. It presses the argument relentlessly to its bitter end. The words of the chorus and elder neighbour coalesce in an easily traced logic, demonstrating far more clarity than in earlier translations of the texts culminating in the exquisitely crafted ‘The man obsessed is like a cock of the walk in a hurrying towards the worst.’
The play is staged under the design direction of Dale Ferguson with mandatory spareness. The music and sound by Jethro Woodward mark the crucial points of the drama with deft providence. The lighting, too, in the hands of Luiz Pampolha, remains for the most part singularly stark emphasising a realism that forces the audience to gravitate to the words. They are what drive this production and they do it unerringly and irresistibly.
Deborah Mailman plays Antigone with a genteel but uncompromising reserve matched to a contained and often bewildered Creon played by Boris Radmilovich, his foreign accent underlining the fact that here was an interloper ill at ease among those with more local savvy. Kate Fitchett as the sister Ismene expresses the confusion of one uncomprehending of a refusal to compromise. Gillian Jones, playing Tireseus and Euridice gives an outstanding portrayal of the blind seer. Hazem Shammas, portrayed Haemon with wonderful passion and Pacharo Mzembe (Pach) presented a memorable debut performance as the guard with James Saunders as the luckless messenger. It was left to Paul Blackwell as chorus, merging the elder neighbour in this production, to comment on the argument as it is developed. It is understood that he filled the role at a week’s notice. His accomplished treatment in the part deserves great credit conveying a reluctance to interfere with a palpable horror of the implacability of the antagonists. It was a stylish interpretation.
What it was that Sophocles was so concerned with cannot be said with certainty. Women in public office then and for much of the past and ensuing millennia represented the institution of the Temple in the city state as votaries of the Gods as opposed to men who represented the Palace or instrument of Government. It is possible therefore to surmise from Creon’s language that it was the same conflict that is at the heart of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, that contest between Church and State that made all of Europe its battleground right up to Napoleon. When Creon protests that he will not be ruled by women it is likely that it found its echo in Henry’s challenge, ‘Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?’
By couching it in a theoretical hypothesis Sophocles wrote a drama that crosses far beyond even this great divide. It is with extraordinary timeliness that this articulate work is presented to an Australian audience in such an accessible format just as the debate over Regnal Commonwealth as opposed to a Republic is being once more brought onto the political agenda.
In such debates of fundamental politics both sides claim the ‘truth’ through often manufactured or ‘polluted’ logic and each presses and resists their respective ‘truths’ just as Creon implacably pressed his ‘truth’ and Antigone resolutely defended hers. The outcome of a contest between the immovable and the irresistible ends in common destruction.
It was not so long ago that these forces converged in Australia in much the same circumstances as devised for Antigone’s ill fated brothers who contended each other at the gates of Thebes. In 1975 Malcolm Fraser, the then opposition leader made a peremptory bid to wrest government from Gough Whitlam, the incumbent Prime Minister. Whitlam resisted. Each claimed the right under the constitution. It could have similarly rent this country and ‘set loose the dogs of war’. As Jesus Christ pointed out no man can serve two masters and a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.
The constitution of ancient Greece ultimately proved too fragile to withstand the pressures of those convicted in flawed logic as most constitutions are. Most are too rigid. We may just be lucky enough to live under one that in the words of Creon’s son Haemon, ‘is able to bend to the flood’. Not only do we have the means of order at hand but the ability to measure both it and ourselves through a prism of time. We may be the lucky country after all. We would do well to remember the words of Healey’s chorus, ‘the man obsessed is like a cock of the walk in a hurry towards the worst’.
Antigone is very much a relevant drama for today and for us in particular, it’s also drama at its profound best. It provokes another syllogism of a more sound ancestry; we are all human, all humans are fallible therefore we are all fallible. Thank God that in our case we have had the opportunity to correct our mistakes before we found ourselves ‘sacrificing the living to the dead’.
Company B presents
The Burial at Thebes
a version of Sophocles’ play by Seamus Heaney
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre, 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills
Dates: 10 April – 25 May
Times: Tuesday 6.30pm, Wednesday to Friday 8pm, Saturday 2pm & 8pm, Sunday 5pm.
Tickets: Full $54. Seniors (excluding Fri/Sat evenings) and Groups 10+ $45. Concession $33.
Student Rush $25 for Tuesday 6.30pm and Saturday 2pm, available from 10am on the day (subject to availability)
Bookings: 9699 3444 or www.belvoir.com.au