Review: Antigone

by Jane

Edwin Kemp Attrill created his own career as a theatre director. By-passing the typical drama school pathway, he established his own company ActNow Theatre for Social Change at the age of 16. Starting with a focus on political street performance, their first work was about detained Guantanamo Bay inmate David Hicks.

Under Kemp Atrill the company went on to have a particular focus on forum theatre, with their work Expect:Respect, about sexual harassment and date-rape, touring South Australian schools and youth prisons, alongside a series of more traditional but politically informed works, such as 1984 and An Enemy of the People.

After leaving ActNow to pursue new directing opportunities, Kemp Attrill was afforded the opportunity of being the first Artistic Director of the University of Adelaide Theatre Guild in many years. In a previous incarnation, this role was last held by Chris Drummond, who went on to be the Associate Director at the State Theatre Company and is now the Artistic Director of Brink Productions. The Guild has framed this AD role as a professional development opportunity: time for a professional to spend time with directing as their primary profession, while also bringing something new to the amateur company.

While the Guild has a history of radicalism this has waxed and waned over the years, and by the time I studied at the university the Guild had a reputation – amongst students, at least – as one of conservatism. Always a “town and gown” society, the guild had become much more “town”; the Guild didn’t even hold a table at O’Week when I started. Some of these things have changed since my time – the much needed establishment of “student only” productions one factor – but I was very excited to see both the Guild and Kemp Attrill afforded this partnership, not least of all because I consider him a very close friend, but also because of the wonderful opportunity of resources it gives to up-coming directors, and onwards into the greater Adelaide theatrical landscape.

I give you this rather long introduction to this review, as this background is what I have been trying to process since seeing Kemp Attrill’s first mainstage work for the Guild. His production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone (in translation by Lewis Galantiere) is by all accounts a solid production. It’s biggest downfall, and my greatest puzzlement with the work, is the air of conservatism through the piece.

This is first acutely noticed when Ismene (Karen Burns), at an early hour of the morning, comes out to speak to the nurse (Lesley Reed) and Antigone (Sara Lange). The nurse berates her for being out of bed at such an hour; and for having “nothing on.” The trouble is, Kemp Attrill’s Ismene is wearing a floor length gown.

When Antigone is hand-cuffed and brought onto stage by the guards (Tony Sampson and Adrian Skewes), she yells at them to stop touching her. And while, of course, this is a valid concern, the two men are holding her by the arms in the least threatening configuration possible for such an arrest.

This isn’t to say Ismene should be in underwear, that manhandling should be tantamount to sexual harassment, that every line in a script is to be interpreted literally, but these are the most literal moment of the conservatism which seeps through the production.

Anouilh’s script is interesting in that it is almost entirely undramatic. The set-up is told directly to us via the Chorus (Nicole Rutty), and then the dramatic points happen off stage and out of sight: we are shown the conversations around the event; the exposition rather than the action. While Kemp Attrill finds some interesting visual moments, and elicits good performances from in particular Lange and Michael Baldwin as Creon, he very rarely ascends the production to feel as if the stakes are as high as the exposition would want us to believe. And it is through this that, overall, the work feels seeped in conservatism.

Lange’s Antigone is the highlight of the production, her performance is particularly touching in her responses to the other characters: a dip of the head here, a giggle behind a hand there, a withering glance unseen, a tear rolling down her cheek. The biggest strengths in the production occur when Lange and Baldwin are given a chance to really fight it out: a young and confused Antigone believing that there is a nobility in suicide, an old Creon unable to see the central confusion this young woman is under. Even here, though, the pair are allowed too often to let the energy levels flatline, blackouts to signify movement in time lose any pace which was building up, the two stray too far from a real connection.

Perhaps the strongest singular moment in the work is where the sound (Rory Chenoweth) builds to a peak in a pitch where the words are lost and all we can be captured in is Lange’s performance. It is here where we get closest to the central tragedy of Antigone, where all we can see is a young woman writhe, the audience not hearing the words which are slightly off-ease on our modern ear.

Reinterpreting the classics is all the range in contemporary Australian theatre. Popularised in particular by Simon Stone and Melbourne’s The Hayloft Project, the act of re-writing these works – from Sophocles, to Ibsen, to Miller – is bringing up many interesting conversations about the role of old playwrights in contemporary society and in the similarities and differences in the way Australian’s see the world today in comparison to these men (for they are invariably men) did when the wrote the work. While this movement has yet to reach Adelaide, I’ve been watching from afar and have loved the internal dialogue within the few works (Benedict Andrew’s The Seagull and Simon Stone’s Wild Duck) which I have seen.

Leaving Antigone I was therefore curious. Anouilh adapted his script from Sophocles in 1944; and it was translated to English that same year by Galantiere. In 2012, the Guild’s program speaks to the political climate around Anouilh’s adaptation; and to a case of Hasna Maryi, a young female suicide bomber in Iraq in 2008. The program speaks to this: Kemp Attrill’s production doesn’t seem to at all, nor does it speak to any modern context.

Instead, in 2012 Kemp Attrill gives us a fine production of a fine script, which says little about where we are, how we have changed, or where we are going. For a traditional night of theatre, fine. For a world where I seek something more, I’ve been left looking.

The University of Adelaide Theatre Guild presents Antigone by Jean Anouilh, translated by Lewis Galantiere. Directed by Edwin Kemp Attrill, design by Lillian Chester, sound design and operation by Rory Chenoweth, lighting designer and operator Stephen Dean. With Michael Baldwin, Karen Burns, Tom Cornwall, Rosemary Jackson, Sara Lange, Lesley Reed, Nicole Rutty, Tony Sampson, Adrian Skewes. At the Little Theatre, University of Adelaide, until May 26. More information and tickets.