Antigone
Image: Will Hall / WUDS

‘Antigone’: a play of political infighting translated into modern times

Thinking about a play written over 2,000 years ago involving the daughter of an incestual father fighting her uncle may not conjure up images of 1970s Ireland for you. But for the directors of a modern translation of Antigone premiering at the Arts Centre this week, the two-sided battle between Antigone’s brothers resonated with divisions present in an IRA-torn Ireland. 

Antigone is pretty much a story about a family who fight over two brothers who kill each other”, explains co-director Jack Butler over a hurried bacon and egg muffin on his way to rehearsals, “and basically what we’re looking at is infighting in a relatively modern climate”. 

“Obviously you’ve got lots of battles between sets of two sides caught in conflict in 1970s Ireland, both religious and political in nature, and what we’re looking to do is to showcase that political infighting through Antigone. We also want to potentially tie it to how Brexit and no-deal Brexit can affect Ireland, as a real potential impetus for a resurfacing of the IRA. 

“All characters in the play are members of the IRA, which we expect to be pretty hard-hitting… but the IRA had a really interesting period throughout the 1970s/80s where the younger generations wanted to move towards peace and ending the fighting, but the older generations were very set on political violence. 

They seek not to change the meaning of Antigone’s words, but give them power in a new political context

“The ties to Antigone are actually really simple, such as how the fact that British and Irish soldiers were buried in different graves, which obviously links to the stories of brothers Polyneices and Eteocles in the play.” 

As all the ties between 1970s Ireland and 400 BC Greece started to become apparent, I wondered which came first in Jack’s chicken and the egg scenario – the idea of directing a play about 1970s Ireland, or finding a context in which to adapt Antigone

His answer was: Matt Franks. Or, to elaborate, “I studied both European Theatre and Drama and Democracy with Matt Franks last year; in the first module I read Antigone, and in the second we considered Irish context in theatre, and I pitched to Calum [Martineau, co-director] that we amalgamate the two. He took the idea to the next level with the idea of the warehouse, the Chorus, the character ideas.” 

The action of the play, originally taking place in Sophocles’ mythological setting of Thebes, will become a Belfastian warehouse this week. You might think that for a play that intends to use a script authentically Greek in tone, transporting the audience into 1970s Belfast may pose a challenge for the team. 

By all means, this was not taking a step too far for the imagination of the audience for co-directors Jack Calum. Using a modern (1960s) translation of the text by Don Taylor, they seek not to change the meaning of Antigone’s words, but give them power in a new political context – a context they’re going to create by – literally – setting the scene. 

For a play that is all about instigating changes and challenging the status quo, it wasn’t too difficult to transpose its settings and aesthetics to ’70s Belfast

For production designer Leo Han and set designer Georgie Vasey, this wasn’t an issue: 

“For a play that is all about instigating changes and challenging the status quo, it wasn’t too difficult to transpose its settings and aesthetics to ’70s Belfast. Finding parallels between Greek and Irish contexts was design team’s principal task.

“For example, the original Greek chorus – a homogenous mouthpiece for the hopes and fears of the average citizen – was differentiated into individuals with fascinating backstories by Calum and Jack, vocalising the various zeitgeists that haunted the ordinary Belfastian: division lines across religion, ideology, and national identity, tied together by trauma.” 

“These big ideas each carve out a corner in Georgie Vasey’s set – an abandoned arms warehouse caught up in the Falls Curfew of 1970 – and dominates the stage with its presence, be it the volumes of Yeats and Joyce scattered around menacing metal trunks, tempered by violence; or a painting of Madonna and the Child, towering over deflated footballs and broken dreams.”

Alongside these mementos of the past, Calum tells me to expect a “vintage, sepia-esque quality” to the set, costumes and lighting, mirroring feelings of nostalgia and bringing us back to the past. “Sound design has also been a massive help to the whole process and nods to the context,” he adds.

It couldn’t be more perfectly timed with Brexit and the rising tensions between both the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and mainland Britain

With talk of a potential Irish backstop by the end of this year flooding modern politics, however, I wondered if Jack and Callum had made any deliberate effort to conjure ideas of current debates in their audience’s minds. Should we expect to see any anti-backstop campaigning in the play? 

Well, the play won’t be all serious; our messenger-soldier will take on the typical ‘fool’ character. It will be fairly hard-hitting though, and I hope people will have a few questions when they leave the theatre.” 

“No, there will not be any anti-backstop campaigning or the like. The main body play is solidly set in the 70s. It’s only really at the start and the end that you might see a bit of a tie to today… but you won’t be watching a piece of propaganda. Both Brexit and Antigone are concerned with infighting, and familial tension surrounding Brexit takes place today too; of course, we are performing the week before 31 October, and that was part of our original pitch.” 

Calum elaborates: “I’d be lying through my teeth if I didn’t say I wasn’t just obsessed with Ireland anyway, but it couldn’t be more perfectly timed with Brexit and the rising tensions between both the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and mainland Britain if a backstop should be put in place between the border. 

Antigone is also so heavily a show of infighting and the conflicts that arise from it. If there’s one consistency through out our political leaders at the moment, it is the division and lack of faith in the leaders who run each party, something heavily prevalent in the show.” 

There’s an element of ‘history repeats itself’ in both Antigone and the Irish context, so let’s learn from it

Alongside reactions to the political dialogue within the play, co-director Calum is expecting some emotional responses from the audience. While Jack promises that the Greek monologues that appear never-ending in length on the page are delivered so well by the actors that they seem to fly by, Calum tells me: 

“There’s elements of the show which the actors and the rest of the team have made beautifully stunning, and there are some monologues which are delivered where I nearly start blubbering. And we always said that if the audience go out thinking a little bit about the consequences of infighting and division from a historical perspective then maybe we could learn from it, that would be ideal.”

“There’s an element of ‘history repeats itself’ in both Antigone and the Irish context, so let’s learn from it.” 

Putting their own spin on characterisation of these great Greek mythological personas, you shouldn’t expect to find the authentic group of analogous old men in Antigone’s chorus. The crew will be transforming the usual united front into four individual warehouse workers with different back stories, dichotomising views between the younger and older generations to reflect the infighting so integral to the play. 

“The Chorus lines will feel very different; instead of being one unanimous voice, they will disagree with each other. I feel like this has been a big hindrance with modern audiences watching classical pieces, they have these big chunks of text that are delivered so monotonously. Hopefully, though, all the visual stuff we’ve got going on during these big odes and the fantastic delivery will make it digestible for the audience.” 

I think people will be surprised by what we’ve done with it – it doesn’t feel like a Greek play when you watch it

“Reimagining the Chorus is the coolest bit of the show by far. I think people will be surprised by what we’ve done with it – it doesn’t feel like a Greek play when you watch it”. 

It’s not all been plain sailing for the Antigone cast and crew, however, Jack tells me with a grin. “We were worried at the beginning that the seemingly insurmountable task of perfecting the Irish accent may pose an issue. It’s not the easiest thing to do, and we didn’t want people walking out of the theatre like ‘I just couldn’t get past the accents’. 

“At first we had a lot of issues, but then we had student Molly Parker come in to work with the cast. It really helped – although don’t expect perfect accents across the board. The cast are impressive and there are some very good accents though, most a lot better than Brad Pitt’s… 

“You’ve got to forgive the pronunciation of ‘Creon’ too. In the Irish accent it often ends up sounding like ‘crayon’, so please look past the not particularly authentic ‘Creons’”.  

Jack wraps up our interview reflecting on the stars of the show: “Steffy Felton is superb, exactly what you need for Antigone – that fire mixed with an ability to communicate so beautifully. Tom Kingman playing Creon as well is such an exceptional actor, his ability to flit between anger and the broken man persona really show off his range. I won’t go in to everyone in detail as I’ll be here all day – its a big cast for a studio space – but the whole play has great energy, and I’m really excited for it.”

Antigone will be at the Arts Centre from 23- 26 October 2019. Tickets can be purchased here.  

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