Review: AntigoneX

7 February 2018

AntigoneX is an odd beast. Probably we should have anticipated this—the Midsumma Festival isn’t generally the place for traditional theatre. But queering a classic Greek play, through the lens of modern Australian politics, made for something deeply entertaining but also utterly baffling.

I suspect it would be useful to read the original Antigone before seeing this play. However, I expect most people will not heed this advice, as I certainly would not have had it been given to me. It’s an ancient Greek play. It sounds confusing and difficult. Just watching the modern, queer version sounds lots more fun.

So for those who don’t know, Antigone is a play by the Greek writer Sophocles, which immediately follows on from the writer’s other play, Oedipus at Colonus. And yes, that is the Oedipus you’re thinking of. Antigone is the sister/daughter of the famous Freudian example, and the play focuses on her choice to bury her brother Polyneices, who has been denied burial by their uncle Creon, after fighting their other brother Eteocles, a battle which led to both their deaths.

Most of the characters from the original play seem to appear in AntigoneX, albeit sometimes with slightly altered names—Tiresias, a blind prophet, for example, becomes Dee Tritus, a “washed-up” cabaret singer clad in a ball gown made from garbage (played brilliantly by Louisa Hall). However, even when the names are somewhat more recognisable, the situations are rather radically different—Antigone’s trespass, rather than the burial of her disgraced brother, is an attempt to become pregnant with his child as a piece of performance art. This is intended to both symbolically bringing him back to life and to create future generations in their image, one which is diverse and queer, in defiance of the idea of human perfection pursued by Creon.

In an interview with Susanna Ling, co-director Zachary Dunbar explained that the work was initially inspired by Charles Meere’s painting Australian Beach Pattern.

It spoke to Dunbar of, “An idealised race which would have coincided with murmurings of fascism during [the 1940s].”

His first attempt at adapting Antigone in this light was set, “In a kind of sci-fi lab about a leader trying to perfect a new race.”

This later developed an Auspol bent when he came to Melbourne and realised how much some of his ideas about race, gender and sexuality were reflected in the politics of Tony Abbott.

This idea, of the toxic pursuit of an “ideal” humanity, and the roles that we are forced into in society, are explored and broken down throughout the play. The Chorus, in particular, begin as Creon’s ideal of perfect masculinity, and over the course of the play find themselves growing into real characters, aging and flawed and human. But to try and recount all the themes, and all the ways they are explored, would be a doomed effort. It’s a fragmented sort of work, in which questions are raised but no answers are given—the audience is left to decipher the meaning and come up with their answers on their own.

In many ways, it resembles a piece of performance art more than a traditional play, appropriately given the actions of Antigone and Ismene, performance artists themselves. We were often lost as far as the narrative was concerned, unsure what level of metaphor the play was operating at (was Antigone actually pregnant with a beach ball, or…), and even days later, I am not sure really how to describe exactly what it was. But it was always entertaining, and certainly forced the audience to engage more deeply with the performance than a play which purports to have all the answers could do.

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