Antigone, by Sophocles
Translation by Shigetake Yaginuma
Directed by Satoshi Miyagi
A Production of Shizuoka Performing Arts Center (SPAC)
Adapted by Park Avenue Armory and Presented in Collaboration with The Japan Foundation
Sophocles’ Antigone is a play written 2.500 years ago but in many ways relevant for today’s culture. In this performance, Greek tragedy and Japanese theater join forces to create a magical, mystic and spiritual experience of this tragedy in a show that combines Japanese culture and Greek drama. Twenty-nine actors and a director create an experience that deals with loss, memory, and duty—a performance that unites cultures, techniques and aesthetic types.
In ancient Greek and Japanese religion and culture ideas on death and the afterlife are somewhat similar. The main difference is that, in Christianity, there are only two options for the afterlife: hell, or heaven. So, you must live a “proper” life in order not to end up in Hell. In Buddhism, there’s no fear of what’s going to happen next, because when you die you become a Buddha.
Having in mind the above, Satoshi Miyaki decides to tell the story of Antigone “through the eyes of the dead.” Antigone lives both with the living and the dead. Therefore, she is fearless to the face of death. Miyaki aims to show us that within the frame of death, prosperity and riches are devoid of value. A play with psychological depth, as it’s evident from each character’s journey, Antigone troubles us and wakens our senses.
Paying attention to the value of afterlife is what stresses the obscurity of the play. Good and evil coexist, as borders are unclear. Antigone’s act is an act of terrorism, but in the same time heroic, in defense of justice, a traditional, cultural, and religious must. There is something intense and compelling in the individuality of Antigone that dares to challenge political authority. Same for Haemon. We witness social rebellion, from both as they fight for unity of what is moral and what is political. Antigone can’t tolerate nor accept injustice. But she isn’t perfect. She is rigid and ignores her sister as she fights for her love of her brother, therefore isolating herself from her by that rejection.
All the contrasts in the play challenge the audience. Duty vs. human feeling, principle vs political expediency, moral values vs. demands of the state. Along with conflicting orders of value (family – state, woman – man, ethics – politics, religion – law etc) can only prove us one thing: there’s always going to be failure. These values are impossible to maintain. Creon and Antigone are a strong proof of that.
The team worked with geography (space) and time, along with text, music, and dance, following the tradition of the Japanese Noh Theater.
The performance started with a brief introduction by the ensemble, with the main characters positioned in a lineup at the front edge of the “liquid” stage, introducing us to the story, telling us who they will be playing, and what just happened before what’s going to be performed. Then, the main actors join the rest of the ensemble, moving to in a slow pace in a stylized choreography that consists of repetitive movements and gestures, accompanied by live music. The play ends the same way with the actors in diagonal lines.
Members of the ensemble, during the performance, leave the action of the stage and take places upstage, becoming the orchestra that plays instruments, thus creating a different aesthetic giving or releasing tension from what’s happening on stage.
Water plays a vital role at the show, as it did in ancient times when talking about death and the afterlife. As in ancient Greece so in Japan, they believed that the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead was separated by water, specifically rivers. In ancient Greece, you had to cross the five rivers, Acheron, Styx, Lethe, Phlegethon and Cocytus to get to Hades (The Underworld) and in Japan you had to cross the Sanzu River. So, water becomes the boundary between life and death. Actors are walking, floating in the water, reminding of ghosts, creatures caught between life and death. The “river” is full of large stones, a cluster of the which is situated in the center of the stage, with the top of it filled with a pond of water which Antigone pours as a ritual rite to her brother. The cluster indicates the burial site of Polyneices and the later grave of Antigone and Haemon. In ancient times, in Japan, stones played an important role. In Shinto, large stones are worshiped (Kami), while gravel was used to indicate sacred grounds.
The play comments on burial and religion and the way we treat the dead through comparison with today’s practices. Questions are raised about the state’s right over physical remains. Who has the right to be buried? Does a traitor or a sinner still own that right? And how should they be buried?
In a feminist vein, Antigone comments on female resistance, that, still today, outrages men. Women resist men, power, the state. Women are trying hard to break all the dichotomies. The play merely shows the challenges that women face in a patriarchic society not very distant from the society today.
The most interesting invention was the use of pairs/sets of actors for the main characters. The “speaking” actor had a second actor to join him, as the same character, representing its moves. The actors who spoke sat in small stools in the water and faced the audience while speaking. Movement and language were two different sections. The second actor was to create the visual scape through gesture. The actors that were to perform the gestures exchanged the candles they were holding in the beginning, with white wigs that the priest coming on a boat gave them. The priest returns at the end and leaves lanterns to the river (light symbolizing hope), reminding us the spiritual connection with elements like water and the tradition of the Shinto priest and the Bon Odori Festival.
The projection of each actor’s shadow on the back wall of the stage was based on Indonesian shadow play. The shadows enlarged the action of the actor speaking without enlarging their facial expressions. Big and small shadows in size become a magnifying mirror to show the status in comparison with the emotional state of each character.
The chorus provided a special aural experience combining words and music. Bodies are turned into stones, still images, a deformed mirror of the story in space and time. Sometimes the actors lower their eyes, and they cite in that position, showing with their body the emotional state they are in or the situation that’s occurring, for example a new lower status, humbleness, etc).
Creon was a chorus of men, becoming the state authority, instead of a man of state.
The Ismenes (a pair of them) represented the citizens that are compromising rather than confronting power.
The actors were dressed in white with traditional Kimonos. When Antigone is stripped from her clothes during her last moments, she removes the kimono to reveal a skeletal bodysuit. Their garments (robes) remind us of Uchikake or Shiromuku, the Japanese bride’s wedding coats. They symbolize purity, maidenhood, obedience, and innocence. The branches remind us of the sacred tree Sakaki, offerings in the wedding.
There was a projection with the use of the traditional basic structure of Greek tragedy like kommos, stasimon, epeisodion, etc, to transition from one act to the other, indicating the secrecy and respect of the ancient writing of Sophocles.
Action was in all the stage, leaving no space unexploed, but in the same time read by the audience in a way that doesn’t create a loose focus or confusion.
The sound of the waves is used as a contrast or to complement intense scenes and matches the upcoming horrible end, warning as the waves do for a storm. The sound of the voice of Antigone, when she is at her last breath was compelling in its simplicity.
Niobe’s description, which underscores Antigone’s pride, (“Snow never stops to fall from the face…”) creates magical images in the subconscious of the audience.
The word Eros (love) is repeated giving importance to the major message of Antigone. ALWAYS LEAD WITH LOVE.