A pared-down reinterpretation of the Greek classic delivers contemporary punch with great skill.
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Jane Montgomery Griffiths and Emily Milledge in Antigone; Photo Pia Johnson

From the first moments of this Antigone, it is clear we are seeing a new vision of a very old work. We begin with the bodies – the inevitable outcome of the tragedy – bared in agony against a painfully thumping sound track.

Then we meet Creon: not an ancient Greek king but a modern fascist: cool, corporate and, importantly, female. Jane Montgomery Griffiths, who has created this adaptation and plays Creon, sets up a powerful new dynamic in imagining and inhabiting this Creon, making her simultaneously creepily intimate and chillingly distant.

In making a woman the villain ​Griffiths, perhaps ironically, turns gender into a non-issue. This is no longer a play about a powerless woman fighting for her moral law against the rigid law of a powerful man. Rather it is the story of a young and rebellious woman faced with the cut-glass cruelty of the woman in control.

Griffiths has removed two major characters, placing the prophecy in Antigone’s mouth and swallowing up the character of Creon’s wife Eurydice in Creon herself. There is no chorus – the modern audience is allowed to draw its own conclusions –  but a new character, a kind of bureaucratic factotum cum prison warder, provides necessary bridging to ensure the action moves effectively and, on one occasion, a powerful soliloquy on torture​.

The result is a sharper focus on the two-way relationship between Antigone and Creon that heightens the drama and – in direct contradiction of Creon’s contention – makes the play more personal than political.

The minor characters Antigone’s sister Ismene and her fiancé, Creon’s son Haemon, are used as foils, Ismene providing an effective watchful eye but Haemon hanging a little loose in the new narrative structure.

Griffiths is masterful and utterly convincing, providing a grounding realism in what is otherwise a surreal nightmarish production.

Balancing her, Emily Milledge is an obsessive Antigone who sits barely within the bounds of sanity. Hers is a driven and exhausting performance, confronting but never hysterical.

The exposure of Antigone is expressed literally. For much of the play she wears nothing more than a bulky harness around her hips. Some may find the nudity distracting but it is an effective vehicle for a raw character who has discarded adherence to human law.

More jarring was a motif which required other characters to partially undress on multiple occasions as they were exposed to the tragedy in their own lives. The repetitive unbuckling of belts and lowering of trousers became an irritation and a bump in the otherwise careful pacing of the production.

This small gripe aside, director Adena Jacobs delivers a totally controlled tragedy in which movement is delivered to a steady rhythm and every word is given its due.

There are sufficient echoes of the traditional drama for the resonances of the original to sound clearly but this is a very contemporary production.  The sparse and careful design provides for effective use of windows and a single steel staircase but leaves the stage largely bare save for telling intimations of earth, water and blood.

The production touches lightly on modern referencing – Guantanamo Bay hovers ominously at the edge of our consciousness. But the feel is much bigger. We are dealing with tragedy that is not about any given situation but about the nature of human beings in struggles of power facing unjust laws and choosing to die for a cause.

The collaboration between Jane Montgomery Griffiths and Adena Jacobs delivers a confronting and accomplished retelling that brings a classic to life for a modern audience.

Rating: 4.5 out of five stars


By Sophocles
Adapted by Jane Montgomery Griffiths
Direction Adena Jacobs
Assistant Director Samara Hersch
Lighting Design Paul Jackson
Cast includes Jane Montgomery Griffiths, Emily Milledge, Elizabeth Nabben, Aaron Orzech, Josh Price

Malthouse Theatre
21 August – 13 September

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