Two Antigones in the Netherlands

Reviewed by Herman Altena
Universiteit van Amsterdam
Klassiek Seminarium
Oude Turfmarkt 129
1012 GC Amsterdam,
The Netherlands
Phone: +31 20 5252571
Fax: +31 20 5252544

Originally, this article was meant to cover three performances of Sophocles' Antigone, which were presented in the Netherlands recently: one by amateurs, one by starting professionals, and one by established professionals. Unfortunately, the last production was cancelled shortly before the opening night. The director had not been able to convince the actors of the propriety of her approach: the present situation in Bosnia as keynote for the Antigone. Obviously the difference of opinions had caused such a gap between the actors that even with a new director a satisfactory performance could no longer be realized. Still, two productions remain, which I will treat here, focusing on the question of how the 'working material' determines the eventual realization. I take 'working material' in a broad sense, comprising actors, directors, designers, financial means etc.

The first production was realized on a small scale. A local theatre in one of the western districts of Amsterdam regularly develops projects for amateurs. One of these projects was Sophocles' Antigone. I interviewed the director, Jan Wegter, after I had seen the performance. He has a wide experience as advisor of amateur groups, as director, and as actor in radio plays.

His point of departure was twofold. First, he had always been fascinated by the play, and especially by the strength the dramatic figures show before passing the boundary of life and death. Secondly, he believes that amateurs can profit a lot in their private lives from acting. Through acting they discover who they are and they learn to manage their emotions and restraints. In short, they grow as human beings.

Almost all participants had no acting experience. Still, Wegter wanted them to play Antigone, because the play is so rich. Moreover, amateurs reach a higher level when they act in stock plays. Poor plays by poor actors lead to poor performances.

Wegter's single objective was to have his actors play Sophocles' text through total empathy with the dramatic figures. All energy was spent on this aspect of acting,through which Wegter believed the text could be transformed into a successful performance. I think this was the right approach. Amateurs with no acting experience should be able to dedicate themselves entirely to learning the art. And that alone is difficult enough.

For Wegter, acting starts from the inner experience. Actors have to understand what the words mean in the context of the play, but also they have to feel what they mean to them personally. Only then they will be able to make the words sound as if they surge directly from their hearts. Only then they are able to express sincere emotions. Therefore, the text has to be read very attentively. Then it will also show you how dramatic figures should be played. For Wegter this is essential. Modern directors, in his opinion, too easily impose their own interpretation on a text, without listening to what the words really mean.Wegter's approach stems from his work as a radio actor. In that profession, feeling the words is crucial to giving the words meaning. This experience proved very useful for directing amateurs. Initially, some of them were scared off by the deep personal emotions that were involved in this project. But once they understood what the words meant in the context of the play, and to themselves, they became confident.

First, some basic acting techniques had to be learned. This was done mainly through improvisation, comprising all kinds of physical training, breathing exercises and voice training. The actors had to learn how to move, how to speak, how to laugh, how to cry. After the parts had been divided, the first scenes were set. Originally, Wegter had wanted the roles to be created through improvisations, but that proved to be too difficult. Therefore he decided to lay out the entire mise en scene himself. Now the actors had only to incorporate his directions into their roles. Because the outer movement corresponded very closely to the inner movement their confidence increased. Moreover, the fixed mise en scene undoubtedly improved the coherence of the performance.

The preparations took four months. After that, as the performance showed, most of the actors had mastered the words well, irrespective of the sometimes highly poetical register of the language. This was a great achievement, the more so since they had no classical background. Some actors had a clear Amsterdam accent, which is an indication of social status, and it was touching to hear them act out the words as if they were entirely their own. The characters displayed were in general very convincing and the emotions shown often moving.

Of course, some actors did not rise above the amateur level. But others, who were more malleable and who knew better how to manage their emotions and restraints, did reach a high, sometimes almost professional level. The old man playing Teiresias, succeeded in making the text sound as if he had invented the words as he was speaking. He really seemed to feel the emotions he expressed. His hand was shaking and his voice was trembling during his argument with Kreon, who behaved a bit woodenly. On the dramatic level, this produced an impressive picture. Teiresias showed a dignity through which he rose far above Kreon. But on the level of acting, the difference in abilities created an imbalance. The actor who played Kreon simply had a smaller range than the one playing Teiresias.

The production was created without any budget. The theatre provided room for the rehearsals and admission was free during the three nights of performances. The set, a raised platform at the back and a box, more to the front, where people could sit down, came with the space. At the back wall, between black curtains, a broad strip of gold-coloured tinfoil represented the palace. There were no special costumes, except that the Teiresias wore a chiton-like garment. Kreon was dressed in red, a sign of his royal position, and in a black leather coat. Eurydike had a long red scarf. Haimon wore a red t-shirt. All the other actors were clothed in black. The audience surrounded half of the acting area, a reference to the Greek theatre.

An experienced spectator always tries to detect meaning in the signs he perceives. That meaning can be created in spite of the intentions of the theatre makers was nicely illustrated by this performance. For me, the red t-shirt of Haimon, whose other clothing was black, indicated his position between Kreon (royal) and Antigone (death). And the chiton of Teiresias accentuated his status as seer, an outdated profession in our modern society. In reality, though, the actor who played Teiresias simply felt more secure when wearing this particular garment, and Haimon used to wear a white t-shirt, but that had become too dingy.

The chorus in this production was directed separately by an assistant of Wegter's. He combined the words of the songs with music and with gestures expressing the content. These were developed through improvisations. Thus, the achievements of man displayed in the polla ta deina song were mimed. Sometimes the members of the chorus spoke together, at others they alternated so that the text seemed to move trough the chorus. The movements and gestures were rather artificial and did not give extra meaning to the words.

It was a pity that the parodos missed the relief Sophocles' text shows. Thus the contrast with the black future indicated in the prologue was lost. But this loss was fully compensated by the way the last choral song, after Antigone's impressive farewell, was replaced by a poem of Kavafy's in which courageous parting from life is the central issue. This poem was recited by Ismene. She, according to Wegter, develops into a second Antigone, impressed by the heroic attitude of her dearest sister. Kavafy's text matched the performance perfectly, and it gave Ismene's character an extra dimension.

After each song the chorus withdrew from the acting area. I think this was a good decision, since being present on stage without text is difficult, and the acting area was too small to have the chorus on stage without dominating it. Wegter himself delivered the choral dialogue in the episodes, sitting near the platform at the back. He was accompanied by an old man who remained silent during the entire performance. The two men remained on stage continuously and did not partake in the choral songs. The silent old man's only response to the action was to turn his head in the direction of the speaker. His facial expression hardly changed and it was unclear whether he understood at all what was going on among Thebes' rulers and advisors. Or did he just not care?

Later, Wegter told me that the man is illiterate and that he only wanted to participate if he did not have to speak. How he experienced his role remained unclear even to the director. He refused to yield up any of the secrets of his inner life. This man was uniquely himself, and that gave his role great beauty.

On the whole, the performance was very convincing. The house was completely silent, and people were really shocked at the events. I am sure that many of them would have watched 'LA Law' that night if their family or friends had not been part of the troupe. Here, in this small theatre, they were deeply moved, watching their nearest ones displaying the most intense emotions in matters of life and death. Here, they saw more than just action, they experienced how deeply the consequences of action may affect people's personal lives. That Antigone should bring about this effect is marvellous. It shows the enormous power of the Sophoclean play.

The second production was performed during a workshop initiated by 'InDependence' in Arnhem, a city in the eastern parts of the Netherlands. Promising directors are invited to produce a low- budget project which they consider important for their own artistic development. The Antigone I saw was directed by Victor Loew, a well-known actor in Belgium and in the Netherlands.

His goal was twofold: he wanted to recount Antigone, and he wanted to teach actors who are closely related to him something about acting.

1. To teach actors.

Loew had been in several productions directed by Luk Perceval, the
artistic leader of the reputable Belgium theatre group 'Blauwe Maandag Compagnie'. What he wanted to pass on especially was the rehearsal program Perceval had developed.

Rehearsal took two months. During the first week , the play was read. Then rehearsals started according to Perceval's schedule: the first week they took the first act, and every new week a new act was added. The morning sessions were reserved for textual training. Until two o'clock the actors played ball games, cards, did stretching exercises etc.. Meanwhile they rattled off their texts as quickly as they could. Every psychological interpretation is thus expelled, and the text becomes part of the actor's self without carrying any meaning. This is an uncreative and boring drill, but it has a very wholesome effect because during rehearsals and performances actors can do anything with their texts.

The afternoons of the first two days of the week were devoted to improvising individual scenes. The director searched for openings. The third afternoon was dedicated to the mise en scene. On the fourth this was put to the test. After one week the foundation was laid and a run-through closed off the week.

On the first two days of the second week, much less was open than in the first week. Thus gradually the scenes and acts became fixed. For an actor this is the best way to combine creativity and drill.

2. To recount Antigone

For Loew, theatre is a narrative art: everything starts with an inner need to tell something to an audience through body, mind and expression. The author's text is the basis. For this production, the figure of Kreon was the starting point, because in Kreon Loew discovered many features of the roles modern society imposes on its members. Kreon is symbolic for how people suppress their own personality and individuality. Kreon thinks he has to be king, because a man has to take responsibilities, to reach a high social level, irrespective of who or what he is or wants to be. A society that considers this more important than mental health is a sick society, according to Loew. Our behaviour is similar to putting ourselves above the laws of nature, above our own intuition. Kreon, who symbolizes this attitude, eventually ruins himself. For Loew such social criticism is important. The classical plays in particular enable us to look critically at how our own society is structured.

Loew's approach differs fundamentally from Wegter's. Wegter wanted to present the story of Antigone, Loew felt an inner need to tell a story about modern society, and in Antigone he discovered a striking example of this story.

The set consisted of 12 or 13 refrigerators, in five blocks, partly piled up and placed in one horizontal row. Three blocks on the right, two on the left, with a free passage in between. Behind that, many empty chairs in two blocks, and a rack with costumes. On the middle block, right, a television showing two silent eyes, next to it a helmet. Down right a chair, a siren, down left a chair.

Before the performance started, Kreon, in black, was on stage already, sitting stock-still on the chair down right, before the fridge with the silent eyes and the helmet. This was Loew's means of accentuating his conception of the dramatic figure of Kreon as the starting point.

Then a woman appeared, dressed in black and wearing a black wig. She was totally sloshed. At first I thought she was Antigone and that was an insuperable shock. But the woman was Ismene. Initially, her drunkenness was irritating, but gradually it became a consistent part of her role: here we watched a completely isolated person, unable to deal with the death of her brothers or the stubbornness of her living relatives. Ismene's vacillation between extreme positionsmade Loew think 'She must be totally sloshed'. In the first scene she says to Antigone (also in black and wearing a black wig) 'I will not help you. Are you mad?', and in the second 'I will die with you'. In the first scene she thinks 'If I cooperate I will be guilty of the death of my sister', in the second: 'Now that she has to be killed I want to be killed also'.

The first reaction is very rational, the second completely emotional. She drinks to suppress her individuality. Ismene mourns for her dead brothers, and then the news of Kreon's decision reaches her. Ismene loves her family and she does everything she can to reconcile Kreon and Antigone, Kreon and Haimon. But she fails. At the same time, she can not take sides. She is like the child that is torn up when the parents fight, and which becomes the instrument of their quarrels. Thus Ismene carries the atmosphere of the performance, which is pain. Whereas the other dramatic figures try to keep themselves together, she is a walking open wound.

Loew combined Ismene and the chorus into one character. To him, both are onlookers rather than participants in the action. Thus, after her first scene with Antigone, Ismene sings, but not the text of the parodos. The only thing Loew retained from the chorus was its lyrical function, because the chorus does not advance the opinions of the dramatic figures. Searching for a modern counterpart for these lyrics he was drawn to musical texts as 'Why must the show go on' and 'I remember when I loved you' (after Antigone's last speech).

Antigone, according to Loew, is the only one in the play who opens her heart. She shows the opposite mentality of Kreon's, and her role is almost an example of what we need in our own time.

When Kreon announced the decisions he had taken concerning the burial of the two brothers, he spoke very modestly, his voice hardly ever raised. He remained seated on his chair. His words sounded as if such decisions were only too natural for him. Then the soldier arrived, clearly exhausted (the actor had been doing pushups intensively before his entrance). He jumped on one of the refrigerators, stood there with one arm raised, and recounted what had happened at a dizzying tempo. Here, clearly, the morning sessions' drill paid off. There was almost no textual treatment and his performance was completely non-naturalistic. Emotions were displayed only by stressing particular words. The figure had become a sign. This was accentuated by the position he had taken, standing like a statue, dressed in a Greekish soldier's costume. He represented the outsider, the army, unconscious of what is going on, and especially scared about his own life. Standing high, he constantly looked up. But Kreon sat low. This picture was so wrong, spatially, that it produced a strong meaning. It expressed the total gap between the world of the soldier and that of Kreon.

According to Loew, the role of the soldier was too small for a more thorough characterization. But when the soldier afterwards brought Antigone in, he recognized that he was involved in the detection of an act he himself would hardly consider as wrong. That touched him and now he showed emotions. He gave a beautiful representation of the winds blowing away the dust that covered Polyneikes' body. The sighing sound from his mouth became stronger and stronger. You could really hear the wind grow and picture the scene as he spoke. This was storytelling at its best!

While the soldier told his story, Antigone stood passively by, but Ismene crawled away. The subsequent confrontation between Kreon and Antigone, downstage, was hard and moving. Kreon stood up for the first time and came over to the left. He was raging, spitting, while Antigone remained seated, stubborn. Meanwhile Ismene hid herself behind Antigone's chair, experiencing every clash as a heavy mental blow. After the confrontation Ismene stood up. During her final dialogue with Antigone she hung around her neck, holding her very tight, but in vain. Antigone left.

Meanwhile, Kreon had gone back to his chair. Now Ismene walked over to him, stood behind him, tried to talk him over, tried to soften him grabbing him by the groin. Both fell on the ground. A short sex (or fight?) scene followed, which concluded when Kreon stood up and walked away. He had not changed his mind.

The confrontation between Kreon and Haimon, who was dressed in a grey suit, started quietly. The long silence of Haimon after he heard the death sentence of his beloved was a pivotal moment. A strong clash followed, in which Haimon refused to reconcile himself to his father's decision. But there was also embracing. This was Loew's means of showing that love is an important theme in Antigone, presumably because family relations are involved. That his actors were also closely related in their private lives gave these pictures a very personal touch.

Antigone's farewell scene was impressive. Ismene/the chorus offered her a bottle. She tasted, but immediately put it aside. She decided to face death with a sober mind, a decision which was most consistent with her character. She fell down, trembled heavily, writhed on the ground while speaking the words of the kommos, in which she also took the parts of the chorus. Thus an interior dialogue was created which was intensified by her movements on the ground. She breathed quickly and heavily. Finally she took off her wig as a sign that she had parted from life and was prepared to die. This was a striking gesture because it literally destroyed the character. Instead of the luxuriant mid-length black hair of Antigone, she displayed a very short haircut, which made her face so small at once.

At this moment Loew broke in to the plot. He made Antigone move to an imaginative cave, indicated by a concentrated spotlight. Haimon accompanied her there. While she spoke her final words, they made love, which culminated in death. Then Ismene took off her wig and put it on the dead bodies. For me this was a sign of burial. For the director it was also a sign of parting with the deep mourning she had shared with her sister. During this scene I suddenly realized that her drunkenness had diminished. And it disappeared completely in the last scene. Ismene chooses to live.

Loew transposed this scene, which in the play is recounted after Kreon had changed his mind, because the last part did not amplify the story he wanted to tell. The decision of Kreon to listen to his own self had to be the finale. By presenting his interpretation of the messenger's report visually, with Kreon present on stage, sitting in his chair, his eyes directed to the audience, he could show in one concentrated picture all he wanted to tell: if Kreon changes his mind, it will be too late. This scene showed how well the visual can substitute for words.

The scene in which Kreon changed his mind was a worthy finale. The stage was dark. Just one side of Kreon's face was spotlighted, and right above his head the eyes on the television screen came to life. Then we heard Teiresias' voice. His words were inescapable, and Kreon listened. He whispered his replies to Teiresias, whereas he had been spitting during his confrontation with Antigone. This scene illustrated Kreon's inner struggle very effectively. Finally he gave way.

During this scene Ismene opened the refrigerators, one by one. All were empty and an increasing hard white light cleaved the darkness. For me this illustrated the emptiness in Kreon's head, his cold brains, but also the silence of the community unmoved by the terrible events, a silent community that was also represented by the empty chairs behind the fridges. Or did they indicate the isolation of this family? These same fridges initially had represented the chorus to me: continuously present and silent. According to the director, the sign was indeed meant to carry a multiplicity of meanings. For him it represented also the beginning of introspection: openness and emptiness, a total absence of prejudices, a new start. The essence of setting is to create an atmosphere of illusion. It is a structure that accompanies the emotions the dramatic figures display. If you are absolutely sure about what you want to tell, the spectators will attribute right meanings to the various signs and thus the ambiguousness will serve the story.

Kreon had freed himself from the constraints of society, and Ismene had taken a positive decision to live on. Thus, the show ended with a gleam of hope. But that hope was loaded with severe pain and only appeared after the most severe losses of brothers, sister, son and wife. After Ismene had opened the fridges she stood behind a microphone and sobbed softly. Her sobs were amplified and the sound increased while slowly the lights faded out.

The performance was impressive. But I doubt whether an audience that did not know the story beforehand will have understood the complexity of meaning. These spectators may have got a fairly wrong impression of the original play.

Finally, this production showed many moments of over- and underacting. This created strong dynamics, but at times it also directed my attention too much to act of the acting. And that distracted me from the story. This was too bad, because the performance proved that Loew's inner need to tell his story was completely justified.

Herman Altena

Herman Altena is attached to the Department of Greek and Latin languages at the University of Amsterdam, and to the Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Utrecht.