Antigone | Sport For JovePhotos – Marnya Rothe

“Updating” the classics is nothing new, but can be a fraught endeavour. Often it feels motivated by a seemingly desperate need to clutch at the present moment in the hopes of appealing to new audiences. Who, it is feared, may perceive a distancing effect from their modern lives that could interfere with any capacity to relate to texts that hail from decades past, let alone hundreds or even thousands of years outside their present-day context. This quest for “relevance” to modern audiences has become both a blessing and a curse in contemporary stage practice, and is the underpinning of much theatrical output, from the youth-targeted approaches of The Bell Shakespeare Company, to the recent plethora of new versions of Chekov and Ibsen at companies like Belvoir.

In the former case this is a predominantly aesthetic approach, with the traditional texts performed intact with modern dress, or the latter, often co-credited to the original playwright in “a new version by…”, which step beyond being classed as merely new translations into modern English and instead are essentially adaptations. Either technique can work strikingly well and ideally breathe new life into a play, making one reconsider these foundational dramas in an unexpected light or from a previously unconsidered perspective, or simply make a relatively traditional reading of their narratives seem freshly vital and immediate.

Sometimes, however, these modernising approaches can seem merely trend-chasing, pandering to audiences’ supposed complacency or presuming much upon their lack of imagination, a perception of theatregoers’ inability or unwillingness to engage with stories about human beings existing in a time or place other than our own… a presumption that may or may not necessarily be true. If the notional power of the classics is to reveal the constants of mankind, the much-lauded and debated “universalism” of an Aristophanes, a Shakespeare or a Brecht to reach across the gulf of time and still have the insight to skewer recognisable and eternal fragments of the human condition, then is it not a double-edged sword to “update” such classics? Is it not limiting to assume that people willing to attend the theatre to engage in make-believe won’t stretch their suspension of disbelief to imagine and empathise with lives they have not lived, in times and places they have not seen?

On the positive side, such modernisations can enhance this sense of timelessness in a text or its underpinning narrative when done successfully, to show that despite decades or millennia of “progress” we are, to employ the apt cliché, not so different after all… yet conversely we run the risk of being reductive, of diminishing magnificent dramas of politics and mortality to kitchen-sink banality, rendering down the epic into the merely quotidian.

Of course at times, in the hands of a canny director or adapting playwright that is the point, and sometimes it certainly works, by recontextualising the epic as the domestic, to show affairs of state or grand destiny in more “relatable” personal contexts – but it is always a gamble. “Relevant” and “relatable” are words thrown around so readily in theatremaking contexts that, for some, they give us pause, being potentially little better than reflexive platitudes and knee-jerk temporal solipsism.

Fortunately, Damien Ryan’s new adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone is, simply put, a breathtaking example of modernisation done well. Very, very well indeed. In fact, it is not only one of the best pieces of theatre I have seen in quite a while, but it is one of the finest examples of “updating” the classics into a contemporary context that I have ever seen in over two decades of frequent theatregoing. As though working from whole cloth, Ryan does a superb job of interposing the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus’ children into a decidedly contemporary context, one that feels palpably real and of the present moment in a very immediate way. Perhaps most masterful is this text’s ability to make the play feel neither like an ancient world with superficial modernity grafted onto it, nor like a modern scenario awash with flagrantly distracting anachronisms. Substitute references to Greco-Roman polytheism with Jesus or Allah and this production would almost entirely seem to fit within the current language of sectarian sociopolitical conflicts.

Post-Oedipal Thebes, ravaged by the war between his sons Eteocles and Polynices, now both dead in the conflict, is represented here as a very contemporaneous site of modern urban European war. This world is awash with terms like “insurgents” and “terrorists”, and is reflected in the elaborate set, backed by crumbling wall-fragments of bullet-riddled and bomb-blasted concrete, surrounding a cracked mosaic floor, twisted lattices of steel-reinforced architecture exposed like the ribs of a rotting corpse picked over by carrion feeders, a perfect visual metaphor for this postwar Thebes. While the Mediterranean origins of the play are acknowledged through occasional (and somewhat diegetically confounding) smatterings of Greek language and allusions to foreign aide and financial crisis, the primary echoes are very much of places like Bosnia and the Ukraine. References seem updated in an extremely organic way, as Sophocles’ thematic concerns of how a society attempts to heal itself and reforge its ideologies in the wake of such devastation slipstream very comfortably with discussions of fragile new democracies, failed states, collateral damage and media spin.

Creon, played with utter magnificence by stage stalwart William Zappa, is a general turned newly-minted king, trying to transition his war-torn nation into a newly democratic society after the curse of previous conflicts and infamous inbred regimes. He is a master of rhetoric and good intentions, yet plagued by the very modern contradiction of feeling duty-bound to institute strong measures and use firm control to nurture and shepherd the new democracy he is trying to create, yet in doing so risks instituting tyrannies of his own. While the titular role of his niece/great-niece (hey, incest, remember…) Antigone is central to instigating the plot around which this narrative revolves, Ryan's play is equally if not more focussed on Creon and his struggles to be a “good leader” in the wake of such moral and corporeal devastation of the state.

Zappa is simply electric, taking this powerful script and elevating it to the next dramatic plateau, presenting Creon as a densely layered and complex portrait of a leader wrestling with conflicts between the personal and political, trying to be a man of the people yet rule as he sees fit regardless of public opinion. He engages with his son in furious debates about their intergenerational gulf in viewing the way forward, the importance of political symbolism versus the exigencies of governance, and how to deal with a generation of under-parented youth who have grown up desensitised to war and depravity. It is a towering performance that encompasses every shade from humility to arrogance, bridging simmering rage to gripping fear through to inconsolable mourning. I must heartily agree with one well-wisher I overheard at the opening night reception afterwards – after seeing this magnificent rendition of Creon, we can only hope that one day Zappa is given the chance to try his hand at King Lear. Because there can be little doubt after this that he has it in him.

Scarcely less stunning is his much younger co-star, Andrea Demitriades, who tackles the challenging title role. Her Antigone is in many regards the prototypical “headstrong young woman”, yet she portrays the character with great nuance and sensitivity. Demitriades crafts her passionate outbursts and peaks of emotion as sympathetic and challenging in defiance of any sexist characterisation of ever seeming “hysterical”, despite her character’s actions being primarily emotive and intuitive. The zeal of her moral certainty is simultaneously inspiring and terrifying. Antigone spurs debate as much as she personally engages in it, never denying her guilt in defying Creon’s law against burying her brother’s corpse, nor necessarily challenging the injustice of her condemnation so much as demanding that her reasons for doing so be heard for what they are.

The larger ensemble cast around these two titanic lead performances is also very strong, with Fiona Press, Anna Volska and Deborah Galanos contributing palpable gravitas as the primary trinity leading many crowd scenes in a modernised use of the conventional Greek Chorus. They spearhead a larger group of actors representing the vacillating opinions of the war-torn body politic, a dust-covered and blood-soaked populace engaged in the grim task of pulling bodies out the wreckage and starting to rebuild their shattered world. Also worthy of special notice is Janine Watson as a comic-relief soldier, who both deflates and undercuts moments of heightened dramatic tension like the Porter in Macbeth, with a virtual monologue of hilarious counterintuitive statements. She has superb understated comic timing and brings this very witty script to sparkling life in her two brief scenes.

Collaboratively directed by both Terry Karabelas and Damien Ryan, with wonderfully naturalistic set and costume design by Melanie Liertz adding an intense patina of dust-encrusted destruction to the considerable enhancement of the scene-setting, this is a truly superb production. Although worth it for Demetriades’ and especially Zappa’s astonishing performances alone, there is not a false note in this entire enterprise, from script to scenery, and from every other talented actor in between. Whether for an aficionado of new takes on the classics or as a sight-unseen experience in soul-rending, intellectually stimulating modern drama, this play is a must-see, and carries my highest possible recommendation.

Sport For Jove presents
by Damien Ryan

Venue: Reginald Theatre | Seymour Centre, Cnr City Rd & Cleveland St Chippendale
Dates: 6 – 22 October 2016
Tickets: $42 – $35
Bookings: 02 9351 7940

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