It has been over twenty years since I read Sophocles’ Antigone. I was in high school then and the same age as the title character when she defied her father and sealed her fate. I’m closer to her father’s age now and hope I’m not on my way to becoming an obstinate tyrant as I grow older. Playwright Jeff Ho’s urgent and haunting adaptation of the classic, ANTIGONE: 方, presented by Young People’s Theatre, is a call to action for young people to question and challenge authority, and also a warning to older generations of the inherent danger of clinging too desperately to stagnant ideas.
Ho’s retelling sets the action in an authoritarian state that “re-educates” those citizens that challenge the established dogma. Two of those citizens are Antigone’s (Jasmine Chen) mother and brother Neikes (Jeff Yung). Neikes escapes with truly chilling news of how this “re-education” strips people of their humanity. He leads a revolt against this system and, in the violence, is killed. Antigone’s second brother Teo (Aldrin Bundoc), a guard, is also killed. In the eyes of their stubborn father Kreon (John Ng), only the obedient Teo is considered worth mourning. As Kreon demands the bodies be cleared from the square and forgotten, Antigone protects her shamed brother Neikes’ remains. Kreon and Antigone face-off as both father/daughter and representations of old authority and defiant youth.
It is a play of grand ideas, where conflicts arise from characters grappling explicitly with such epic, big-letter notions as: Authority, Responsibility, Honour, and Freedom. Ho’s text is striking and poetic, but he also grounds these ideas in a gripping family drama.
The production, with its clever and resonant use of prop umbrellas, heavily references the student-led 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong as well as the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989. While it has overtly Chinese historical references, the play has a diverse cast and doesn’t provide a definitive location or time period. The aesthetic is specific enough to feel tangible yet with enough fanciful abstraction to allow your imagination to fill in the spaces that have been left for it.
Directors Stephen Colella and Karen Gilodo have adopted the classic in the round presentation. The significance of this is deeper than mere reference to the ancient theatrical form from which the original story hails; it is an appropriately humbling experience to face your fellow audience members and acknowledge them as a drama unfolds between you.
David Mesiha’s eerie sound design—monotonous rain, the droning of distant automation, awful warnings blaring out from giant loudspeakers—elicits bleak, dystopian dread. As does Christine Urquhart’s depressingly grey, utilitarian set and costumes. Flashes of red in flaps of clothing, echoing huge flags that loom in the background, suggest the passionate ideals that inspired the leaders of this nation, but have now resulted in blood pooling in the city square.
Ho has seamlessly woven together the heightened, rhetorical feel of the ancient Greek text with contemporary vernacular. A masterful alchemy is possible when old source material, modern reference points, and innovative staging come together well and this production has certainly achieved that here. Though there is an interlude in which a chorus member muses about nature and mankind’s arrogant dominion over it that felt misplaced; it is certainly relevant to the play’s theme of oppressive authority, but in the moment, it felt like an unnecessary diversion and disrupted the urgency of the action.
There is some humour that keeps the oppressive weight of the story from numbing you. In one particularly well-executed scene, an awkward and nervous guard (Christopher Allen) pays Antigone and her family a home visit that manages to be both tense and hilarious.
The recommended audience of 12 to 18 year olds might not necessarily grasp all of the references of this production, but its thematic substance is clear and compelling regardless. With rousing performances enhanced by Viv Moore’s arresting and evocative movement, ANTIGONE: 方 is poignant, majestic and sure to inspire thoughtful reflection.
ANTIGONE: 方 runs until May 16, 2019
at Young People’s Theatre (165 Front Street East)
See the website for showtimes and tickets