'Antigone', directed by Anna Jahjah for Theatre Excentrique at PACT in Erskineville, is the first show I’ve reviewed where I’ve felt a little unsure of how to approach it. I’ll start by saying that I saw the opening night, which felt like a preview, and perhaps, like many productions, a substantial amount will be reworked and changed over the following nights. I certainly hope that this is the case.
There were many elements of the performance I think which worked. Conceptually the piece is kind of interesting; responsibilities, rebellion, family, youth, ritual. All these ideas are apparent in the production and to a large degree seem to be something Anna Jahjah has sought to explore and find something within. However I think the performance struggled to fully engage with anything meaningful due to a mixture of poor dramaturgical decisions, lazy acting and some quite dangerous set components.
The play features a chorus and Jahjah decided to keep it. I’ll be honest, a chorus interests me, though it’s not for everyone. I want to see an ancient form, such as the chorus, revitalised with something new. So often it’s a drab, boring affair full of monotonous droning and expressionless faces. Jahjah’s chorus was composed of students from Blacktown Girls High who spoke their lines in French. At first I didn’t know what to make of this, but eventually I just grew disinterested. I could not understand a word they said. I have no idea what their purpose is, if not to comment as a collective on the dramatic action, and hopefully provide some form of dramatic entertainment. I guess I just watched a bunch of young teenagers speak French in front of their parents while dressed in white togas? I was so confused. It was so confused. What were they trying to tell me? And given that no one else in the play, save the Chorus Leader, wore ancient Greek clothing, I didn’t even know where they sat in relation to the world of the play which seemed a mixture of contemporary society and some kind of pseudo-1940’s military. I don’t even know. I thought maybe they were going for boy scouts or something, particularly with the use of so many children, but none of that made sense. It was a mess of signifiers and meanings.
The acting was mixed. I was happy with Ellen Williams (Antigone) though at times it felt a little ‘samey’ and Philippe Klaus (Haemon) was also pleasant to watch though I had the feeling he wasn’t quite comfortable in what he was doing. In particular the first scene with the two of them, performed as a quasi-love scene was sort of odd and alienating. It felt forced. Apart from these two performers however, I believe every single actor struggled to remember their lines, aside from those with close to none. It was a plague upon the performance. The show would begin to gain momentum, perhaps engage me, and then suddenly an actor would stand ‘umming’ and clicking his fingers frustratedly. Neil Modra (King Creon) was chronic. I lost all trust in him as a performer and spent the whole time worriedly hoping he wouldn’t stuff up.
Gerry Sont (Guard) was also a victim of the lineless-plague, though his performance featured some of the strangest acting I think I’ve seen in some time. He was kind of mesmerising in an odd way. At one point I actually felt like he completely and utterly believed he was speaking to King Creon concerning Antigone, however all the other emotions that would accompany such a revelation were likewise present; confusion at having transcended time and space, horror at now existing within an Ancient Greek myth, despair at perhaps never seeing his loved ones again. It was a frantic and enjoyable Guard, though I felt perhaps for the wrong reasons.
All issues with the acting aside, I think it is an incredibly tall ask to get actors to perform using dangerous and unwieldy set pieces. Core to the set design were two portable revolves that were taken on and off stage during transitions and often manually turned throughout scenes. The revolves comprised of circular pieces of ply with wheels attached to the underside. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, save that none of the wheels had locks on them. As a result, actors would end up struggling to balance as they stood unsupported on what was effectively an oversized skateboard on PACT’s sloped stage space. It was appalling and dangerous. Not only that, at the end of the performance, both revolves were brought out and an attempt was made to turn them simultaneously as the majority of the cast stood on them. As a result they ended up slowly colliding with the seating bank and groaning against each other unhealthily. After the bows, the revolves were left at the base of each seating bank which resulted in two audience members stacking it unceremoniously as the revolves skittered out beneath people who attempted to walk over them.
In closing, the performance requires more work and the set urgently needs to be re-evaluated. The acting laboured under the performers not knowing their lines, and scenes became tedious (as evidenced by the lady in the front row who fell asleep for twenty minutes). The show has potential, but it needs cuts, tighter transitions (so much up/down with the lights and lengthy pauses) and it desperately requires the actors to get on top of their lines.
'Antigone' runs at PACT Erskineville from the 23rd of April till the 2nd of May.