With the dark days of winter soon to be behind us, who couldn’t use some Greek tragedy in their lives? The UNCG Theater Department’s more modern rendition of Sophocles’ classic, “Antigone,” was able to bring the play into a contemporary light without missing out on any of the drama.
The play centers around the family of the recently deceased Oedipus, who have been cursed because he killed his father and married his mother. This brought disaster and shame not only to his family, but to his city of Thebes. Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, characterized as a faithful heroine who recognizes her duty to her kin. Her sister, Ismene, serves as her foil. She is considered more beautiful and lawful than her sister. Ismene is also set to marry Haemon, the son of Creon and his wife, Eurydice. The Chorus, usually characterized as a group of elderly men, was instead cast as a group of women. This was a great choice by director John Gulley, because whenever the Chorus is heard it feels more so that the actors are invoking the muses, Greek goddesses who represented the embodiment of creative inspiration.
The play opens with Antigone and Ismene’s brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, killing one another from opposite sides in the Theban Civil War. This early scene shows off the play’s modernity as soldiers are running back and forth in very modern day attire, rather sandals and tunics. The newly appointed King, Creon, who is Jocasta’s brother and uncle to the four siblings, declares that Eteocles will receive a hero’s burial and Polyneices will be left out to rot. This is due to Eteocles fighting for the Theban army, while Polyneices fought for the resistance.
Burial was very important to the Greeks, as they believed that if someone was not buried,their spirit wouldn’t reach the afterlife, and would be left to silently wander the earth for eternity. Having one’s body left out to be prey for scavenging animals like worms and vultures was thought to be the harshest punishment that a monarchy could dole out at the time.
After Polyneices fate is decided, Antigone calls on Ismene to meet her after nightfall by some ruins to discuss what they should do regard their unburied brother. Antigone, predictably, wants to bury their fallen sibling, but Ismene attempts to reason with her sister, as Creon has decreed that anyone caught trying to bury the body will be put to death. Ismene denies her sister any help, not thinking that burying their brother is even a possibility, as his carcass is under surveillance from Creon’s royal guard. She is incapable of talking any sense into headstrong Antigone from going to help Polyneices reach the afterlife.
The production, as part of the UNCG’s War and Peace series, deals with three issues, whether Polyneices should be given a proper burial as a Theban citizen, whether a citizen should serve punishment for burying him and whether Creon’s conduct as ruler is fair or simply reckless?
A well established theme in “Antigone” is the interest of the citizen to reject the standards set forth by those in power if those standards infringe on her freedom to perform a personal obligation. Close to this argument is the dispute of whether Antigone’s quest to bury her brother is rooted in rational thought or pure instinct.
The divergent ideas of Creon and Antigone with regard to legislation coming down from the government inform their contrasting convictions about civil defiance. Creon values adherence to the law above all else, right or wrong. He utters later on in the play that “there is nothing worse than disobedience to authority”. Antigone counters with the belief laws cannot and should not be absolute, and that they should be violated in dire straits, like praising the any of the multitude of Greek gods, who in any case should hold more influence than Creon does as king.
The theater department has done a fantastic job with this production, as it was highly enjoyable from beginning to end. The lighting made the transitions between the Chorus and the other characters very visually appealing and more soulful, going from golden light to a huskier purple. The drama is running through Feb 26 in UNCG’s Taylor Theatre. I would advise anyone a little money left over from payday to go see this performance before it leaves the theatre.