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Bursting with ideas

Tony Gardner reviews the recent production of Antigone at the national theatre.

The cast is made up in white-face make-up with grotesque Grande Guignol features, hair and costume.

The cast is made up in white-face make-up with grotesque Grande Guignol features, hair and costume.

Antigone is an important play. It is the play that sets out the great democratic plan for Western civilisation – the tension between the old, capricious antics of the Olympian Gods and the new, emergent law of man. The play revolves around the argument whether the poor eponymous heroine is allowed to bury her brother Polyneices as demanded by religious custom or whether his body be left to the ravages ‘of the crows and the dogs’ as decreed by the ruler of Thebes, King Creon.

Of course, it is man who prevails. But, the sting in the tail of Sophocles’s original story is that this man, Creon, is a vain and faltering specimen – a blueprint, perhaps, for all the corrupt and self-seeking politicians who have inherited the command of the State since Athenian times.

Jean Anouilh wrote his adaptation of Antigone in 1944 in the midst of the Vichy regime in occupied France. It is this version that Tyrone Grima and Sharon Bezzina have chosen to present at the Manoel Theatre, and it is a production that is packed to bursting point with ideas. I have no doubt that this show is a labour of love and that the director has sweated and fretted long hours over every aspect of the play. And I respect that, I really do. In the age of Mamma Mia and other examples of ‘theatre for the concussed’, I want to applaud a production that says: “Right, you lot in the audience are going to do some hard thinking tonight rather than just sit there watching lights change from purple to pink, purple to pink”.

Grima, along with his set-designer Adrian Mamo, has set a frame around the frame of Anouilh’s text. The whole play is set outside a circus tent, and a very beautiful one at that. Mamo’s candy-stripe design is both functional and visually effective.

The cast is made up in white-face make-up with grotesque Grande Guignol features, hair and costume. Antigone herself looks like as if she’s escaped from a 1982 MTV video, and here’s my first problem – it is this very cartoonish mise-en-scene that prevents us from finding some point of identification with the characters.

Sophocles’s original script is bare and austere written, of course, long before the days of Naturalism and the attendant empathy for stage-characters. Anouilh fleshes out the psychological aspects of the drama; so we have a script that is saying ‘Empathise with me’, and a production that has us firmly in our seats – examining the scant action on stage in a thoroughly objective manner. Words and action are seeking harmony and finding none.

So, we are in a circus and, what do we expect to find in such a setting? Circus skills. Again, Grima shows extensive theatre-literacy by invoking the traditions of cabotinage.

Mamo’s candy-stripe design is both functional and visually effective.Mamo’s candy-stripe design is both functional and visually effective.

In the 1920s and 1930s, a Russian director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, created productions that might appeal to the post-revolutionary masses through popular theatrical devices – juggling, tight-rope walking, acrobatics. To that end, he trained his actors over many years in the virtuosic mastery of such skills. A character who was declaring love to his girl might juggle a bunch of apples as a metaphor for his confusion and anxiety, another making a hard decision might do so crossing the stage on a high-wire. This is cabotinage. Grima has enlisted the help of an Italian circus school to train his actors, and the idea is a great one. Until you factor in that these skills take years to learn and the half-hearted attempts at mastering them that the cast of Antigone make look rather weak and desultory. Moreover, the audience is left wondering: why is she juggling?

Ideas, ideas, too many ideas for too limited a project and I’m the heel going against every natural inclination I have to criticise this production.

Antigone is the product of a clever and challenging company, whose work I really want to champion. Such is my desire to salvage some encouragement from this dismal little review that I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, had Grima and co gone for the Sophoclean version of Antigone, all this would be a different story.

The muscular sparseness of the original Greek makes Anouilh’s text look like a six-stone weakling; a frou frou concoction of stale-Gitanes and French existential angst. Grima’s ambition needs a more visceral sparring-partner – Sophocles would happily have traded blows with this clever director and I would happily buy ringside seats for such an encounter.

After all is said, done, examined and written it occurs to me that this year, the much-anticipated V18 something is stirring in Maltese theatre. If Antigone serves to do anything it serves to kickstart a debate on the stages of this State about the nature of this democracy.

A car-bomb in a field in Bidnija has sent urgent ripples around the artistic community of Malta, and people feel a need to respond. Dramatists, directors, actors are voicing their parts not in the language of brute force and ignorance, but in the original language of western democracy, the language of the theatre. Next month, Unifaun stage another adaptation of a great work, An Enemy of the People, and the debate that Tyrone Grima and his company have started with Antigone continues and, for that alone, respect is due.

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