The old Greek tale of Antigone by Sophocles has been told many times before, but never quite like this. Swan Christian College’s theatre company Fenceline Theatre, led by writer and director Jane Hille (pictured), will perform a contemporary reinterpretation of the story this Fringe World at Maali Mia Theatre from Tuesday, February 2 until Saturday, February 6 (get more info and tickets here). BRAYDEN EDWARDS caught up with Jane Hille to find out the fascinating backstory to the tale, how the team went about reimagining it, and how its messages still provide some profound, yet sometimes uncomfortable truths to this day.
What was it about the story of Antigone that made you want to reinterpret it in a production like this?
The story of Antigone was Sophocles’ first play in the Oedipus trilogy, and it was written 446 BC, which is a long time ago. Sophocles’ intention in writing this story may have been to challenge his Grecian society, it may have been a cautionary tale, it may have been to beat the other notable dramatists in the Dionysus Festival going on at the time and take the trophy the year he entered it…who knows?
What is remarkable and confronting simultaneously is that we all suffer the “human condition” that is universal and timeless. Antigone is set against a horrific family narrative, that aside, some of the other complexities of the story are still relevant; the role of women in society, the role of family, the interconnectedness of the extended family, women in leadership, the effects on both men and women of the artificiality of the patriarchy, the role of faith in society, the place which God does or doesn’t hold in our world, the notion of power and control, pride, humility, war, jealousy, the use of ultimatums as deterrents, imprisonment, redemption, restorative justice…I could go on.
As human beings, we have far more in common with each other than anything that sets us apart. Empathy and compassion should be our greatest accomplishments, however, sadly these attributes of humanity are not always shown so readily. This is an age-old story in which the characters reflect that unfortunate truth by their selfish actions.
And how does this show compare with those you have worked on before?
In 2018 I wrote and directed Anyman, a production with Fenceline Theatre Company and Shalom House for Fringe. This was an original work about addiction told through the performance work of residents from Shalom House and a small cast of FTC actors.
In 2019 I directed The Book of Everything, a play by Richard Tulloch performed by an ensemble cast from Fenceline Theatre Company for Fringe. This is the story of domestic violence as seen through the eyes of a young boy as he grows up that is complicated by the boy’s imagination and his father’s religiosity. These were Fringe award-winning shows.
This year I’ve again written and directed another original work, Antigone is an adaptation, which is different again.
There is a consistency to the type and style of work that I do that resonates with who we believe “Fenceline Theatre Company” is, and what we believe “Fenceline Theatre Company” offers the theatre-going public in Perth and certainly at Fringe. We like being on the Fenceline. having “space to create” for collaboration and interpretation through theatre.
Theatre is a very powerful medium and has always tackled difficult material. Antigone is no different. When an audience comes into Maali Mia Theatre, I want them for the hour we have them to be held, suspended in disbelief. To think, feel and respond. The intimacy theatre creates is unique and there is no other medium like it. You can’t simply swipe left and that is the beauty and magic of it. There are no takes, we don’t shoot it again. The lights go down, the actors come on and stay on until it’s finished. It is powerful, immediate, and real.
Is this a new endeavour for you, or did it present any new challenges for you as a writer and director?
I hope I have captured the essence of the Sophocles’ Trilogy in this adaptation. As a writer I wanted to bring back to life as it were, the characters in the narrative who were silent and give them a voice in the story, to help people understand the complexity of the family and the events prior to Antigone’s demise. Why she was so adamant on burying Polynices when her uncle Creon, had forbidden it and why indeed he did forbid it, when Polynices was his nephew.
I have always felt sorry for Oedipus. He was a victim; it was never going to go well for his children.
As a director I wanted to honour this script and use the exceptional talent of this young cast, giving them a project worthy of their skills. Antigone is an emotionally demanding script for any performer, as you will see. The story is awful, but within the chaos are moments, I believe of extraordinary depth, catharsis and engagement.
I have designed this production so that it captures a contemporary audience, and this Antigone becomes therefore, relevant. This is high drama theatre! It’s gritty, intense and engaging regardless of how old the story may be in or the story itself. The audience we hope will be absorbed by the whole production.
For those not too familiar with Greek Mythology, how does Antigone fit into the bigger scheme of things? Was she, like most of them it seems, the lover or relative of another famous ancient Greek character we’ve probably also heard of?
Antigone is maybe not a story everyone has immediately heard about, but some may have heard about the Oedipal complex. A son who is in love with his mother. Oedipus was Antigone’s’ father and brother. Jocasta, Oedipus’ wife, was her mother and her grandmother.
Antigone, like the mythical Phoenix that rises from the ashes, like Hercules, Achilles, Pygmalion, Perseus, Odysseus is another story that has a deeper meaning about our folly or weaknesses as humans. In most of these myths, the characters struggle against the Gods, because they want to elevate themselves out of a set of circumstances. These stories are often battles of the will where pride plays a central role.
People are also familiar with the word tragedy, we use it all the time as part of our vernacular, but we don’t often connect the original meaning of the word which pertains directly to a type of theatre. Antigone is a tragedy because it fits certain literary requirements, along with being an incredibly sad story.
Here’s the super short version of Sophocles’ Antigone and trilogy back story. My adaptation manipulates this…
Before the play starts, we see Laius, King of Thebes, is told by prophecy that his newborn son Oedipus will kill him and marry his own wife, the child’s mother. He tries to kill his son to prevent this, but in Greek stories, trying to alter fate is always the thing that brings it closer. The baby escapes the attempt and is raised without knowing his real parents. He later kills a man he does not realise is his own father, and marries the widow, which he does not realise is his own mother. Jocasta, the queen, not knowing this is her son, has children with him. Four, to be precise. Two sons and two daughters.
Jocasta learns the truth, that her husband is her son, and kills herself, while Oedipus gouges out his eyes in horror, and his own sons exile him, his daughters guiding him through the wilderness.
Where Antigone begins, the two brothers fight over the decision to exile their own father, and fight over who should rule the city. After a civil war, they kill each other. The dead Queen’s brother, Creon, now in charge in place of Oedipus’ dead sons, tries to cover up the whole mess by blaming the elder brother, Polynices, and letting him take all the shame by letting his dead body remain desecrated, disallowing him from entering the afterlife. But one of Oedipus’ daughters, Antigone, refuses to let her brother be forgotten and desecrated, and so is determined to defy the tyrannical law of her uncle.
Creon must contend against the strong will of his resilient niece, all the while his own son, Haemon, her cousin, is in love with her and will surely be devastated if anything bad happens to her.
So essentially it’s about a woman born of incest trying to preserve all that is left of her broken family’s honour, and a King trying desperately to sever himself from his connection to his sister’s stained children. It’s all a bit complicated really.
And are there any themes or messages in the tale that you feel are relevant today?
The role of women in society, the role of family, the interconnectedness of the extended family or the lack thereof, women in leadership, the effects on both men and women of the artificiality of the patriarchal structure, the role of faith in society, the place God does or doesn’t hold in our world, the notion of power and control, pride, humility, war, incest, jealousy, the use of ultimatums as deterrents, imprisonment, redemption, restorative justice, powerlessness, entrapment, gender politics, violence against women, oppression, subjugation…
And more specifically, a quote that sums up the power of the story in a particularly pertinent way?
“Love is a word you use to comfort yourself with. Real love is raw. It’s a pulsing, bleeding struggle. It’s suffering and sacrifice…”
Who are the people that are helping you bring your vision of this show to life? And how do they bring their own character or flavour to the production?
The play has been largely cast from Alumni of Swan Christian College and others who are connected to the “Fenceline” community. I wanted this story to be fiery and passionate and hold all the tension, energy and angst that is evident with younger people. These performers deliver that in spades. They bring to an ancient story a new vitality and a different perspective that’s punchy and intense.
It must have been a challenging 2020 for the Year 12 students participating in this in their final year of High School? How was it teaching and working with them amidst the “unprecedented times” of last year and were you impressed with their ability to adapt to it all?
The last year has been tough for the world! We are really fortunate in Perth, and I think if anything, this pandemic has taught us all just how privileged we are compared to others. We are not complacent by any means. There were certainly difficulties this year for these students. Students all over the world. I think these young people are amazing and they have taken this in their stride and have remained hopeful and resilient. It is a privilege to know them. When things are difficult, as they often are, you have two choices. These young people have made a choice that demonstrates their belief in a better future and I certainly applaud that.
If audiences could walk away with one particular message or feeling from watching this show, what would it be?
To trust in love, in family and to never ever let go of hope.