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ANTIGONE: the tragedy that keeps on giving

On Monday afternoon of this week, I sat in the public galleries of both the House of Representatives and the Senate at Parliament House in Canberra. It was Question Time and many of the questions to our Prime Minister were about Syria, in particular about increasing Australia’s refugee intake and whether or not a campaign of airstrikes on the country was in anyone’s best interests.

I realised, sitting there, watching the same questions asked over and over – and the Prime Minister falling back on his tired rhetoric that his government “stopped the boats”, that Question Time is just that. A time for questions. No answers were given. The captain had made his call.

By Thursday, Australia committed to taking 12,000 refugees from Syria – as well as to a series of airstrikes in the region. In three days, the answer went from “we are doing enough” to “let’s not be too compassionate” to increasing our refugee numbers while the Prime Minister made the unilateral decision to engage in another Middle East war. The Greens argued that there should at least be a debate in parliament, but the two major parties decided that targetting a “death cult” required no more discussion. The captain had made his call and no debate was entered into.

Antigone
Photo by Pia Johnson
Last night, as I sat in the Merlyn Theatre, watching the Malthouse’s new production of Sophocles’ Antigone, as Creon ranted about loyalty to the State, and Antigone was tortured for her faithfulness to her brother, it was hard not to see parallels to our current situation. But, of course, over the 2,500 years since the play was originally written, it has reflected all kinds of different struggles in different many different societies. It’s the tragedy that keeps on giving.

This new production, penned by writer, actor and an expert in Ancient Greek Drama, Jane Montgomery Griffiths, reaches back two-and-a-half millennia and updates the story to now. The play opens with the body of Polyneices laid naked on stage, surrounded by the twisted, broken bodies of the soldiers of the Theban civil war.

The tragedy plays out amongst five actors – with this production focusing on the uncompromising power of Creon, here re-written to be a female leader, played by Griffiths herself. It’s a striking portrayal of a cold leader, who is so ruthless as to be willing to sacrifice Antigone for the good of the State, who is betrothed to her son, Haemon. It’s such a bold performance, it’s hard to say whether the show will be best remembered for Griffith’s writing or this acting triumph.

She is ably supported by the rest of the cast, otherwise led by Emily Milledge in the title role. Milledge is such a strong performer that even here, where the character is trapped by circumstance, barely moving during her scenes, she manages to create a character that warrants the sympathy Antigone deserves. Antigone is effectively powerless in this society Creon controls, but she is bold and stubborn to the end. The moment where Milledge sings from the Chorus of the original text, an echo from Sophocles’ Greece, is as striking a moment in theatre as I’ve ever seen.

The story plays out on a stark, unforgiving set of concrete and steel and an elevated tradesman’s hut – designed by the Sisters Hayes. As the play progresses the ground begins to flood, slowly but surely, we watch the ground become soaked by water that looks so much like blood it is hard to distinguish.

Director Adena Jacobs pulls the whole show together, guiding it masterfully. Jacobs’ work is always striking, often cerebral but with this tragedy, the emotions are just below the surface – and they break through just as the ancient drama reaches its climax, as Creon runs around and around, unable to control the events she has set in motion. In trying to deny Antigone the dignity of her brother’s burial, she loses her own son and begins to doubt herself for the first time.

But she never doubts the power of the State. The captain has made her call and no debate was entered into.

Antigone closes this weekend.

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