Sophocles' Antigone
Baxter Theatre, Cape Town, SA
July 2004

Reviewed by Betine Van Zyl Smit,
University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, SA

This production was advertised as 'a new version' of Sophocles' Antigone, but the novelty was superficial and lay more in the presentation than in the dialogue, although this had been modernised. According to the writers, Sean Mathias and Myer Taub, they worked from a literal translation of the Greek text. In addition to the appeal of a version of the Greek tragedy that was claimed to be African, this performance had a deep resonance with previous South African Antigones because this was the third time that John Kani was involved in a production of Antigone. The first time was in the 1960s, when, as a member of the Serpent Players, directed by Athol Fugard, he took the part of Haemon, as the original actor had been arrested and imprisoned. The second time was his portrayal of the Creon role in the play-within-the-play in The Island, first performed in 1973 and often revived. In this new, 2004 production, John Kani again played Creon.

In his programme notes the director, Sean Mathias, wrote: 'I want to do a production that will contain all the elements of a third millennium life in a third world country. Therefore modern technology and modern music will sit alongside African poverty and the debris of an African war. I want the setting to describe the horror of a war-torn country and will not shy away from using violent images at times to plunge the audience into a different kind of reality.' This bleak background was very evident. As the audience entered, they saw an open stage with a set representing the aftermath of war. There were corpses on the ground and a sentry patrolled the high wall forming the backdrop. This wall was built of sandbags. The sentry wore a balaclava and carried a gun, thus heightening the menacing atmosphere. The right front of the stage was dominated by a raised 'big screen' on which part of the globe was projected. It was focused on Africa.

The action of the play started when a man carrying a torch emerged on to the darkened stage on the right. He carried a flashlight. The screen came to life and showed the face of a female announcer who was seated in front of it. She was reading the news, announcing the outcome of the civil war in which Thebes had been involved. The logo of TNN (Thebes News Network) appeared on the screen. The simultaneous projection of events on stage on the screen suggested contemporary life with its blurring of reality and virtual reality, people's dependence on TV networks for legitimating reality, and the construction of history.

As images of war were projected on the screen, a row of actors filled the front of the stage. They started reciting an adaptation of Sophocles' choral ode on the glory of Thebes but soon their utterances became confused and unintelligible, thus reinforcing the powerful impression of disturbance in the city/state. Most of the actors constituting the ad hoc chorus went off, but Antigone and Ismene, clad in camouflage combat pants, tattered tops and with their hair in dreadlocks, were left on the stage. The opening scene of Sophocles, where Antigone asserts her intention to disobey Creon and bury their brother Polynices, was played out while the screen transmitted the image of Creon's (John Kani's) head between two African shields. This immediately summoned up the image of a state ruled by one strong man whose presence was everywhere and underlined the daring of Antigone's refusal to accept his ruling. As in Sophocles and Anouilh, Ismene accepted the traditional role assigned to women, 'Women are not born to rival men. I shall know my place.' Antigone was passionate in her resolution to carry out her duty to Polynices as Eteocles had been 'buried in noble honour'. She would carry out this duty 'for the ancestors' in spite of the decree that anyone found burying Polynices would be stoned in public. The scene was followed by TNN projecting anti-Polynices propaganda.

Creon now entered. He was clad in a modern business suit and wore the insignia of the double shield on his tie. He had a shield ring on his finger as well. He announced that he has assumed the kingship of Thebes and immediately displayed his distrust of bribery and corruption in the state. He solemnly pronounced the death sentence for anyone daring to bury Polynices and spelled out his policy to make Thebes 'an even greater place'.

TNN showed a young man singing the praises of Creon and his policy. It was the voice of Thebes and billed as a public service announcement. This clearly demonstrated how Creon had usurped all the powers of the state. This was one of the many instances where a traditional African practice, here that of the 'imbongi' or praisesinger who celebrates the greatness of a leader, was blended with modern Western technology.

The role of the sentry, and André Weidemann's interpretation, retained much of the comic relief in Sophocles. He related the discovery of the burial honours performed for Polynices. Creon reacted with furious threats. If the sentry did not discover and deliver the guilty party, he would be punished. The second choral ode of Sophocles on the greatness of man, 'Man wonderful man...' was projected on the screen, but soon also turned into propaganda for Creon.

Shortly afterwards the guard returned with Antigone as his prisoner. Creon, unmoved by the fact that she was his sister's daughter and the fiancée of his son, Haemon, stressed that it was a woman who had dared to defy his law. Pronouncements like, 'She laughs in my face. Suddenly she's a man and I'm not', served to show Creon's deepseated contempt for women. The subservient position of women in African and other cultures was thus brought to the fore. Antigone would have to die but Creon also tried to implicate Ismene in the deed. To protect himself from bloodguilt Antigone would not be executed but entombed in a cave with enough food and water for a while.

After Antigone had been led away, the choral ode on the curse on the house of Labdacus was delivered in adapted form. Eurydyce appeared at a window in the wall. She was shown as the silent observer at this palace window in many scenes.

In the scene with Haemon, Creon set out his philosophy of government. He used formulae such as, 'Authority must be acknowledged by the citizens.' Haemon tried to persuade him to soften his stance and indicated that the decision not to bury Polynices was causing dismay amongst the Thebans. Haemon had his own set of aphorisms: e.g. 'The truly wise man never stops learning.' When Creon accused him of representing Antigone rather than his own father, Haemon replied: 'I speak for her and you and me.' Creon considered her a terrorist. For the audience this would have had immediate resonance with the contemporary 'War on terror'. During the scene between Creon and Haemon, dark clouds were shown on the screen portending disaster. After Creon and Haemon parted, still implacably opposed, there followed a striking adaptation of the Sophoclean ode on the power of love. Antigone's face was projected on the screen and the citizens of Thebes, while gazing at it, repeated: 'Love! It mocks us one and all'. This culminated in Haemon shouting: 'Love! It mocks us one and all!' before leaving the stage.

Then, to a song sung in isiXhosa, Antigone was led on by the sentry. They were joined by a number of citizens so that the semblance of a religious procession was created. In contrast to the earlier combat wear, she was clad in a white dress. Her suffering face on the screen, the religious chant and the leaning pole with its crossbars that suggested a cross, evoked associations of the sufferings of Christ. A chorus composed of many minor members of the cast continued to praise the power of love. Antigone was depicted as taking the route of suffering in order to honour what deserved to be honoured. Even the guard who had to carry out Creon's orders expressed his admiration of her.

Antigone's last speech relied much on Sophocles but the words 'unmourned' and 'alone' lost their significance since she was surrounded by six sympathizers as she uttered them. She then left the stage by climbing the wall that now became the mountainside where the cave was situated.

The choral ode about the fate of the Danae was adapted to pose the question 'Who can escape fate?' This was again transmitted via the big screen and formed the transition between Antigone's departure and the arrival of Teiresias, led by a young boy. It was emphasized that Creon has always in the past followed the seer's advice and that his warnings had always proved right. However now he refused to acknowledge the warning that not to bury Polynices would bring a heavy misfortune on him. When Teiresias first emerged, the screen went blank, as if the superhuman message that he was conveying could not be captured on camera. When Teiresias and Creon argued their faces were shown on screen, but then Creon ordered the projection to be stopped. This was the first sign of his uncertainty. He did not want the Thebans to see him disregarding the prophet's advice. After the departure of Teiresias, the leader of the chorus and others appealed to Creon and he abruptly changed his mind. His words: 'I can't go on fighting a losing battle with necessity' echoed the choral message at the start of the scene. He left to free Antigone.

The chorus was in a frenzy of dancing, ululation and joyful celebration in anticipation of the reversal of Antigone's sentence as the messenger arrived. This role was played extremely well by Brian Webber. He related how Creon had first performed the burial honours for Polynices and then went to the cave, but that Antigone's corpse was hanging there. The messenger acted out the confrontation between Creon and Haemon, who, after a final violent altercation with his father, stabbed himself. Thus the catastrophe had not been prevented. Now Eurydyce left the stage and when Creon came back, a broken man, bearing the body of his son, he was told that his wife had also ended her life. Her body was also brought on stage. Creon laid out their bodies and confessed his guilt: 'I am guilty. Lead me away. I am no-one, nothing.' As the play ended he lay down next to the bodies of his wife and son. Although he was still alive, he was in some ways just as lifeless as they were as his political beliefs had been shattered along with his family. Creon's policy of disregarding love, despising women, neglecting ancestral values and tyrannical rule had brought catastrophe to his state. Just as in Sophocles, the play ended with the focus on Creon, rather than on the martyr Antigone. However, her values, the importance of honouring ancestral customs and family love, were brought to the fore again as the big screen went off and on the darkened stage a boy carrying a torch sang a haunting song of the power of love.

As is clear from the description above, this new version was firmly grounded in the Greek original. The introduction of modern technology and modern costume strove to make clearer the application of the themes of the tragedy to the modern world. This was not always equally successful. The acting was also uneven with some of the better performances coming in minor roles, such as the messenger and the sentry. John Kani whose Creon was described by some critics as having the appearance of President Mbeki, but acting like a Mugabe, was somewhat disappointing, especially in the final scene. The actor who played Antigone, Hanlé Barnard, tended to overact and the impact of her conviction was consequently weakened.

All in all this was a thought-provoking rendering of the great tragedy. Its setting evoked not only Africa, but also the images of Iraq which were being seen on screen throughout the world as this production was performed, first in Grahamstown and then in Cape Town.

Betine van Zyl Smit
University of the Western Cape