ReviewsGiants: A South African Antigone
Reviewed by Marianne McDonald
This adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone, written by Sabata, with music also by Sabata, is showing at the Nico Malan theatre in Cape Town from 10 - 21 July, 2001. It is directed and designed by Warrick Grier. It conflates the story of Antigone with Hodova, an African legend.
The author is an African man and he tells a story of An African dictator, Makhanda, who abuses his power, rewriting the laws to suit himself, condemning and torturing without trial. One immediately thinks of Idi Amin, or Mugabe, and their ilk, but with his glasses this actor at times looks like the new leader of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki. Makhanda is able to execute Antigone, called Nontombi in this play, but he is not able to escape the gods and their punishment.
There are many twists to this story to suit a feminist view, and the African setting. The author begins with drums, played by six masked actors in the chorus. These drums are followed by a gray figure who plays a plaintive clarinet; she moves like a supple animal and haunts the stage, an obvious symbol of death, and called in the cast list the Dark Angel. A witch doctress, played by an enormous woman on clog shoes, with elaborate make-up which resembles an African mask, is the Tiresias stand-in who also functions as the leader of the chorus. She delivers poetic commentary and sets the scene. Nontombi appears and meets Asante/Haemon, and they express their love for each other and impatience to be wed. Asante will be absent after the wedding ceremony, because he will be going through the initiation rite African boys must go through where they are prepared through lessons before they are circumcised and must survive in the wild with their bleeding wound aided only by a few herbs and pastes for a dressing. Many die. This is a preparation for manhood.
Makhanda/Creon, announces the deaths of two brothers, one who was a revolutionary fighting against him, and the other a hero defending his country. One will be buried with honors, the other left for the birds to tear apart. Wanjiru (Ismene) tells the news to Nontombi, reversing the sequence from Sophocles, about the decree. Nontombi breaks the law and buries the body, first cutting off the head and bathing it in oil. The guards claim they were under a spell as they saw her do this. She is taken to Makhanda and subsequently tortured and raped. She dangles from a harness as the tortures and rapes are mimed. Makhanda's wife pleads with him to release Nontombi, but he is trying to get her to recant. The wife drinks to ease her conscience. Makhanda has Wanjiru tortured and killed, hoping that during the process that Nontombi will reconsider. She doesn't and is led to a cave where she dies. Makhanda consults the gods and is told by a laughing nightmarish figure (a Teiresias stand-in) that all his prayers are now futile because he has flouted the customs of the ancestors and the laws of the gods by refusing burial to Sizwe/Polyneices. Makhanda goes to free Nontombi, and meets his son in the cave. His son tries to kill him, but instead stabs himself over Nontombi's body. The witch doctress appears to tell Makhanda that his wife has hung herself, and the audience sees her hung body swaying overhead at the back of the stage. Makhanda is left alone to think on these lessons. Drums conclude the presentation.
Much has changed from Sophocles. One loses the rich language and the choruses. There is more magic and the gods use spells. There are African costumes: the king wears a feather crown and a tiger skin is slung over his shoulder. His guard and messenger wears a lion mask. The chorus are also masked, but the area from the nose down is open, so one does not get the muffled sound that one does as for instance in Peter Hall's Tantalus where the mask covers the entire face. The cast is mixed, representative of the new South Africa. Makhanda is black, Asante, coloured, Nontombi, Chinese, and Noziswe (Eurydice, the queen) is blond and white. The masterful arguments and verbal confrontations from Sophocles are not retained. One only sees in a rough way the confrontation of civil law with the family, and the mandates of the gods. Things happen rather implausibly. Noziswe seems to accept in her alcoholic daze Makhanda's torturing of Nontombi, but suddenly kills herself. In Sophocles she killed herself after she learned of her son's death.
Present and past are mixed: the rival sons use spears, yet Makhanda reads a newspaper (he reads that the people are protesting his decision about Nontombi). Wouldn't newspaper readers use rifles? The violence may seem gratuitous and simply for shock value (Wanjiru has her nipples cut off as one of her tortures), but it does replicate many modern atrocities, as one reads about in Bosnia, besides Africa.
Whereas credit should be given to an attempt to deal with recent tyrants, one cannot escape the fact that this is not good drama. The abuses are clear, but one has little sympathy for this Creon. This play misses the tragedy of a basically good man who goes too far, as Sophocles shows us. The Antigone figure also did not live up to her strong antecedent. Wanjiru/Ismene is stronger here, and one wonders if she would not have been a more effective Antigone. Making the wife the major source of criticism for the king rather than Tiresias is also less effective.
And why the name Giants? With pictures of Roman statues on the program? Greek vases with human-sized figures would have been more appropriate. Surely the effectiveness of Sophocles is in his showing human error. Two people who go too far. Here Nontombi/Antigone is too much of a blameless wimp.
The music, as much of the text, is mindless and repetitive. The acting was indifferent. There was so much potential for a good version of the Antigone legend in an African version, but this failed in so many ways from bad writing to bad costumes, and an overcomplicated set with mirrored pyramids constantly being rolled in and removed. Athol Fugard's The Island remains the best African version of Antigone yet. Set on Robben Island during apartheid, it concentrated on the human drama rather than simplistic spectacle. New playwrights should probably tackle the stories they know, rather than delivering up another inferior version of a great classic, to which their play will obviously be compared. It should not be enough to wear African costumes and play drums in the new South Africa: one should also demand a bit of writing ability and dramatic skill from the playwrights.
Dr Marianne McDonald, MRIA
Professor of Theatre and Classics
University of California, San Diego