A struggle against tyranny

Sophocles' 'Antigone': timeless . . . and timely

by Victoria James

Composed more than 2,000 years ago and first devised for performance in religious festivals, the dramas of Ancient Greece have never lost their powerful relevance. When, for example, a pair of New York-based actresses hit on the idea of a global theatrical protest against war with Iraq, they devised the Lysistrata Project: On March 3, groups in more than 40 countries gathered to perform and watch Aristophanes’ antiwar comedy, written in 410 B.C.

It is likewise possible to read contemporary sentiments into “Antigone,” written by Sophocles also in the fifth century B.C., which is currently receiving a magnificent staging by the National Theatre of Greece at Hall C of the Tokyo International Forum. The play follows on from “Oedipus Rex,” but where the earlier drama is best known for its lurid theme of incest, “Antigone” turns the spotlight onto Oedipus’ daughter and her struggle with tyrannical authority.

The play opens as day breaks on Antigone (Lydia Koniordou) and her sister Ismene (Maria Katsiadaki) after a battle that claimed the lives of their brothers, Eteocles and Polynices. Creon (Sophoclis Peppas), who seized the throne of Thebes after the brothers’ deaths, has ordered that the usurper Eteocles be interred with due honors, while the body of the rebelPolynices will lie uncovered where it fell, prey to scavengers and a spectacle of shame.

Antigone vows to defy Creon’s edict of death upon anyone attempting to bury the corpse and the stage is set for a struggle between pity for the victims of war and the propaganda of its victors.

And yet this dynamic staging does not attempt to draw crude parallels between the ancient world and our modern one. The set is minimalist, a blasted battlefield, its edge strewn with discarded armor; the costumes are the often-encountered ahistorical garments favored by theater directors striving to emphasize the universality of their chosen text. Most striking are the five strips of cloth that hang ceiling to floor along the back of the stage, pitch-black when unlit, dazzling white when illuminated. This simple trick is unusually effective here, suggesting both soaring white columns, as of a Grecian temple or senate house, and stark doorways of impossible loftiness, dwarfing the individuals silhouetted against them.

What’s especially welcome is that this touring production, unlike most theater groups performing in a foreign language, does not use distracting side-of-stage subtitling. There is an earphone guide (in Japanese) available for those who insist on following every word, but on the opening night at least half of the audience preferred to simply listen to the Greek dialogue. For those familiar with the drama, this would certainly have paid off. The impassioned eloquence of Koniordou especially was thrilling to the ear, while the chorus gave an excellent ensemble performance, by turns confident and querulous, rhythmic and hesitant.

The production is part of a “Cultural Olympiad,” a series of events around the world to raise the profile of Greek arts and culture in advance of the 2004 Olympic Games, to be held in Athens. The Greek ambassador to Japan, Kyriakos Rodoussakis, has commented that the two countries find common cultural ground in their traditional theatrical forms and the underlying ideals of filial piety and self-sacrifice.

The message of “Antigone,” however, can be appreciated by all. Though this fine production conveys the ageless dilemmas of the human condition, it has powerful resonance in this present day. “It is not my nature to join in hating,” says a defiant Antigone when she is captured and brought before Creon, “but in loving.”