Sophocles' Antigone
Translated by E.F. Watling
Directed by Nick Lee

Muizenberg Dramatic Society
Masque Theatre

21-29 April 1995

Reviewed by Margaret Mezzabotta

The Muizenberg Dramatic Society's production of Sophocles' Antigone played during the week of the 27 April public holiday which marked the first anniversary of the elections which brought democracy to South Africa for the first time. It was a week in which the media reflected on a year's experience of political freedom and the on-going process of reshaping South African society in accordance with the vision of liberty and equality enshrined in the new constitution. The legal system, in particular, is being reassessed with a view to removing all traces of the unjust legislation of the apartheid era. The question of what constitutes a just law is therefore a contemporary and pressing concern, so the production of Antigone at this time can be seen as contributing to the collective debate on this issue.

The players of the Muizenberg Dramatic Society, a long established theatre group, are amateurs in the sense that they do not earn their living as actors but, as was evident from this production, fully professional in their preparation and commitment. The play was staged at the Masque Theatre, a small, 160-seater with a proportionately limited stage space fronted by a conventional proscenium arch. The set consisted of three pillars, two positioned at an angle towards the back of the stage to suggest the palace doorway and the third, festooned with ivy, standing in the facing corner. Two shorter columns, each topped by a Greek-style bust, and a stone bench completed the stage furnishings.

The play began with the darkened auditorium being filled with the stirring sounds of martial music and the clashing of swords, evoking the atmosphere of battle. As the noise died down, the curtains parted to reveal Antigone (Coleen van Staden) and Ismene (Tessa Dowling), clad in simple Grecian robes, emerging from the palace. In the prologue scene, the two performers effectively brought out the contrast between Antigone's uncompromising determination to do her duty and Ismene's timid submissiveness. Their departure by separate exits further underlined the rupture in their relationship brought about by their differing responses to Creon' edict.

Creon's role was ably enacted by Howard Crewe, whose height and bearing gave him a commanding stage presence. He interpreted Creon not as an autocratic tyrant from the outset, but as a basically well-intentioned yet authoritarian ruler who becomes increasingly inflexible when faced with opposition to his ill-conceived decree. The part was played with sufficient sensitivity for all to sympathise with Creon in the last moments of the play, when the actor removed his crown and laid it gently on Haemon's prostrate corpse, the expressive gesture linking Creon's fall from power with the destruction of his family. Competent support was provided by the rest of the cast, notably by John Hitchcock (the Sentry) and Pat Drake (Eurydice). So strong, however, was Howard Crewe's performance as Creon that this revival might aptly have been entitled Antigone's Uncle, since the dramatic life of the production flowed from the persona of Creon.

The plot of the play is too well known to rehearse here, so I shall focus on the aspect I found most interesting, the way the chorus was handled. The chorus of a Greek tragedy is possibly the feature a modern audience finds hardest to appreciate. It certainly presents the most testing challenge to a director. (For an illuminating discussion of the pitfalls inherent in various modern approaches to managing the chorus, 'the alien element' of today's drama, see G. H. Gellie, Sophocles: A Reading, (Melbourne, 1972), pp. 223-225.) The director of this production, Nick Lee, took the bold step of separating out the singing, dancing and speaking functions of the chorus and allotting them to different players. The choral odes were intoned in unison by a stationary group of five masked choreutai representing Theban elders, while five female eurhythmists danced gracefully to their words; the lines of the chorus included in the scenes of spoken dialogue were given to a new character, the Councillor (Tony Hawes), whose costume clearly differentiated him from the formal chorus.

White masks concealed the upper three-quarters of the faces of the chorus of elders but left their mouths and chins uncovered -- a sensible design as full-face masks might have muffled their diction. The fact that they alone were masked set them apart from the other performers and gave them a cohesive, collective identity into which the predominantly female gender of the players (only one of the four was male) was subsumed. The chorus of eurhythmists wore floating layers of chiffon in strong shades of magenta, coral and red over tunics of muted pink and lilac hues, each dancer individualised by a different combination, but one which toned in with the others to create the impression of a unified body. As they danced to the accompaniment of the chanting of the lyric stanzas by the chorus of elders, their movements and gestures had a mimetic quality. Clever lighting intensified the emotional register of each ode, utilising different coloured filters -- warm pink and orange tones or sombre blues and greens.

The same formula of mimetic dance performed by one group in combination with choral recitation by the other was applied to all but the last two choral odes. The first of these, the fourth stasimon (Ant. 944-987), follows Antigone's farewell lament and offers mythical precedents for her imminent imprisonment. It was declaimed over the sound system by a lone male voice as the eurhythmists advanced, in slow motion and in single file, across the dimmed stage, silhouetted against a blue-lit backdrop. Their solemn procession evoked Antigone's unseen journey offstage to the cave. The fifth stasimon (Ant. 1115-1154) was also treated differently. It is an invocation of the god Dionysus, the product of the chorus's not- to-be-fulfilled hope that Creon's change of heart will avert disaster. It was rhythmically intoned by a single dancer, while her companions withdrew to the back of the stage; as the ode neared its end, they and the chorus of elders joined in the urgent summons, 'Come swiftly over the high Parnassian hills....Come o'er the sighing sea.... Come, bountiful Iacchus, King!', the two groups finally uniting in the conluding lines of the last formal choral ode.

The tripartite division of the chorus into a single speaker, a body of lyrical commentators and a group of dancers worked well. The Councillor's interaction in the scenes of spoken dialogue contributed a dignified presence. During each episode the dancers withdrew, either to the back of the acting area or completely out of sight, while the group of elders moved unobtrusively to one side or other of the stage. In two scenes, the Creon/Haemon encounter and the Teiresias/Creon confrontation, they retreated entirely from view. Given the small size of the stage, this focused the attention of the audience undividedly on the individual figures and their conflicting viewpoints.

This production's treatment of the choral odes made no attempt to minimise the chorus's artificiality as a dramatic element but, in a certain sense, accentuated it to the advantage of the play. The rather archaic flavour of the English of E.F. Watling's Penguin Classics translation of the choral songs (e.g. 'His subtlety / meeteth all chance, all danger conquereth', from the first stasimon), the masked appearance of the Theban elders and the stylised movements of the dancers all combined to confer an air of formality and 'otherness' on the choral odes, in comparison with the more naturalistic way in which the episodes were translated and acted. This contrast emphasised their structural function as 'act-dividing' songs.

When I approached the theatre prior to watching the performance, I noticed that a subtitle had been added to the placards advertising the production : 'A Gripping Drama from the Past, with a Message for the Present'. My first reaction was that this was a bit over the top. But after seeing the production and considering the current political context in which it was staged, I am happy to report that both aspects of the claim were fully deserved.

M.R. Mezzabotta

(Margaret Mezzabotta - 1946-2000. Margaret was a Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Cape Town.)