Why Tragedy Matters

Directed by Chris Abraham.
Sept. 10 – Oct. 17 2009
Young Centre for the Performing Arts

As a classical theatre company, one of Soulpepper’s tasks is to make the case for the relevance of tragic modes for today’s audiences. It’s a challenging task, since our swelling awareness and appreciation of the richness of cultural forms in Canada means we can no longer presume upon classical drama’s inherent value. Doubtless there are viewers who believe that the value of Sophocles, Shaw or Shakespeare is indisputable, but it is for companies such as Soulpepper to keep such controversies lively.

Soulpepper’s production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone , staged last fall at the Young Centre, their home in Toronto’s Distillery district, has a twofold task. Anouilh’s play was first performed for French audiences undergoing German occupation during the Second World War, and contained an embedded message of faith for members of the Resistance. Under the direction Chris Abraham, this production strives to infuse and inject Anouilh’s version with the spirit and the mood of today’s times. The cast and company have a great opportunity to offer a parallel to the earlier 1944 staging and to deliver a deft and nuanced commentary upon the bearing influence of the baby boomer generation, the high expectations and demands of youth, and the current dissatisfaction with our political leaders. Their successfulness in convincing us why the story of Antigone should matter to audiences, and more specifically, to receptive and relatively comfortable Toronto audience, is limited. It can not rely solely upon upon the themes of Antigone itself, even if the pragmaticism expressed by Creon, the principles of compromise that enable governing bodies to do what needs to get done, and Antigone’s refusal, are more applicable and accessible to audiences than ever. Their vision of the play, while fresh and sharp, full of resonant images and inspired performances, lacks unity; some invisible binding agent that would propel this production beyond the sum of its parts and into effervescence.

The production’s incongruity is physically manifest in the actors’ use of the set. None of the actors ever appear to be completely at ease with it, though some manage to tap their discomfort with their surroundings to the advantage of their performance. The dark wood paneling, the leather benches, the heavy desk with its soft lamp and cut-glass decanter instill a quiet opulence that is nonetheless ominous. Nine screens, saturated with green, monitor the palace entrances and hallways, and a smaller monitor on the desk, create a cold atmosphere of suspicion and surveillance. The monitors are not used as effectively as they could be, as their placement against the wall make their fleeting images difficult for the audience to catch. As well, the actors give little to no indication that they are aware being monitored or of monitoring others, and so miss the opportunity of conveying the fact that as elegant as their surroundings are, their institutionalized air is hostile to intimacy. Neither Liisa Repo-Martell, nor Claire Calnan, in their performances of the princesses Antigone and Ismene, convey the tension in how they have been protected and sheltered, yet placed under scrutiny. Ismene floats through this mahogany and crystal world in her dark, silky nightgown like a femme fatale rather than the peach-and-white flower of the royal court. Repo-Martell’s Antigone negotiates the space more convincingly, rebelliously leaping atop her fathers’ desk and backing against the wall like a distressed animal in a polished, sterile cage. Her fiancé, Creon’s son Haemon, played by Jordan Pettle, also takes this position against the wall as he’s faced with the crumbling of his father’s great image. It’s a compelling use of physical mimicry, which shows the moment when he, like Antigone, become aware of the traps of their upbringing. Yet even Creon, the ruler, is bound by what’s demanded of him by his duties, and what he demands of himself. R.H. Thompson as Creon looks not entirely comfortable behind the cumbersome desk, which shows a trace of his reluctance at taking up the messy business of ruling Thebes. Having assumed the responsibilities and all the trade-offs that come with it, though, Creon is business-like; to him, furniture is simply furniture. The heavy desk, with its awkward angles doubles as the playing surface for the guard’s card game, which is incongruous. But by far the most awkward attribute of the set is that the audience’s view of main entrance, where many of the crucial moments of the play take place, is blocked by a large column which seems to serve little purpose but to create blindspots. The lighting for the duration of the play remains dim, except for when bars of light fall during the Chorus’ speech regarding the nature of tragedy, emphasizing how each of the characters’ has become locked into their fates like captives in their cells. At intervals, the ticking of a clock is loudly audible, and the audience is made aware of the inexorability of time, and how when set in motion, tragedy cannot be reversed.

Another incongruity of the production lies in the use of various technologies. Creon’s page pulls out what appears to be a Blackberry, whereas the Messenger reads from a telegram. Video monitors are placed amongst antique clocks. The time period’s uncertain- Haemon’s clad in a dark hoodie, while the guard’s uniform is reminiscent of colonial days. Overall, these inconsistencies they give the production a vague air, which indicates that it’s more concerned with the play’s themes than with details.

The character of Eurydice, Creon’s wife, who in Anouilh’s script is present on stage during the play’s entire duration, is omitted from the Soulpepper production. Though her part was originally filmed to be displayed on the video monitors, it was later cut, which is unfortunately because the sight of her knitting on stage might have served to give a stronger sense of continuity. Maggie Huculak, as the nurse, is high-strung and near hysterical, instead of unshakable and comforting; it is hard for us to picture her having raised the young princes and princesses through scraps and bruises of childhood. The three guards of Anouilh’s script is compressed into one, played by Jeff Lillico, yet his performance as the excuse-ridden soldier who does what he’s told, is engaging enough that we don’t miss the others. Two supporting characters are also conflated into one in the person of David Storch, who plays the one-man Chorus and also steps into the lines of the Messenger. This combination, though, is less successful because Storch’s tone shifts so often, incompatibly from caustic to insistent, from a disinterested monotone to emphatic shouting. While his delivery is always crisp, his address to the audience on the components of tragedy is close to a jeer, every dark flap of the irony of the situation is waved in front of us. Tragedy may have become a clichéd and misused term in today’s media, perhaps that is why the play spells out its meaning here so vehemently.

Repo-Martell pitches her voice low, her speech punctuated with nervous laughter. She portrays Antigone as a figure on a brink, a young woman whose childhood ideals have not yet been tempered by the harsh realities of experience. She is caught in an in-between zone, where she cannot, or will not, give rationalizations for her choices, as though those very self-justifications would already compromise her. We are struck by the pathos in knowing she will never be a wife or mother, and not even in her death does she cease to be Oedipus’ daughter. Repo-Martell’s performance of Antigone still appeared to be evolving, as she vacillated between girlishness and agelessness, but Thompson’s Creon has found its true pitch. Careworn yet full of concern, task-oriented and focused, Creon removes his jacket and rolls up his sleeves to deal with his niece, one more job on the agenda. He states his arguments reasonably and with warmth, reaching out to Antigone, and only at the last does he give way to impatience and a flash of tyranny, since, he throws down, this is what Antigone so determinedly wants. The two move like figures on a chessboard in a stalemate, a game that is played with their backs at times to the audience. They both move to the bench at the placed at the rear of the stage, as if they two are mere spectators, discussing the tragedy before them. Then they leap, cover their faces, throw furniture, and the action unspools from with inevitability. We are left with the sense that despite their conflict and irreconcilable views, there share in their dogmatisms.

This Antigone conveys how tragedy is like an engine, with laws that can not be reversed. It makes it evident that when such dogged, extremist positions are taken, there can be no winners. Soulpepper’s production vigourously explores the components of tragedy in order to to impress us with how such questions implicate us in a modern world. Despite the unevenness of some components of their production, it is one that is lively, dynamic and vivid. In the talk-back, R.H. Thompson commented on the necessity, like the student protestor in the well-known photograph in outside Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, of “standing in front of the tanks”, even if no one is watching. The image of Antigone and the very uncertainty of what she is standing for, and why she had to die, may prompt us to ask the same questions of ourselves.


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