How can the law be maintained, if the ruler bends it to benefit his family? A question posed 2,500 years ago that is still relevant today. With such timeless themes, Greek tragedy should be more popular than it is. The company Actors of Dionysus ("aod" for short) is attempting to change this. In the tradition of travelling players, they are touring a contemporised adaptation of Sophocles' tragedy the length and breadth of the British Isles, from Derry to Margate to Scunthorpe.
As can be seen even from their lower-case acronym, aod are thoroughly modern barnstormers. Not only is the play presented in modern dress, it comes in a translation that abandons the "forthwiths" and "forsooths" so beloved of classical translators in favour of a more up-to-date interpretation. Sadly, the end product is not quite the sum of its aspirations.
The director David Stuttard's translation strikes a very varying tone. With phrases like "Let's get things moving", it uses the idioms of the late 20th century, and appears to challenge the baseless convention that ancient drama should be delivered in 17th-century English. But it lacks the courage of its convictions, and spends too much time still entangled in the archaic sentence structures associated with classical drama: "Victory, yet it was hard-won". The juxtaposition of the two styles, ancient and modern, makes both seem inappropriate. Even more jarring is Stuttard's decision to not only update the setting, but also the textual references. When the Chorus starts talking about sirens, tracers, night-sights and bullets, an audience needs to suddenly readjust its mindset. This is not simply a modern-dress production of a Greek tragedy; this is an attempt to reposition Sophocles' play in the present day.
Yet while this is again a commendable ambition, Stuttard has failed to address the can of worms that opens up as a result. For, despite its timeless theme, this is still the story of Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, who defies the order of her uncle, the king of Thebes, that the body of her traitor brother Polynices be left unburied. The entire play is premised on ancient Greek attitudes to the non-burial of the dead, and the underlying theme of the blood curse incurred by Oedipus.
Making Antigone a 21st-century girl removes the foundations for her hang-up about Polynices' unburied corpse, and the idea of the sins of the father leading to the inevitable death of the daughter requires a sense of fatalism alien to contemporary British society. It is only by putting her into the context of her time that the piece makes sense: and while an audience can cope with that time being presented in modern dress and with modern idiom, filling it with characters who rattle on about turbines, jets and rocket fuel induces serious temporal dizziness.
The attempts to facilitate the engagement of a contemporary audience are, at times, overambitious, but aod's production is laudable in striving to bring a timeless drama into the 21st century.
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