The Royal House of Thebes has left its mark on the artistic imagination of the world from time immemorial. From Laius to Oedipus, from Creon to Antigone, the tragic fate of ites members has been told in every art form countless times.
The latest retelling is in a play entitled Antigone:方 by Jeff Ho, a writer from Hong Kong who is now based in Toronto. The title of the play is followed by a colon and a Chinese symbol which indicates some kind of Chinese connection but nothing more for those who are unlettered in that language.
Pictured (L-R): Rachel Mutombo, Jasmine Chen and John Ng in Antigone:方. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.1
The play is produced by Toronto’s inimitable Young People’s Theatre and is intended for ages 12 and up. Introducing young people to one of the great myths of Western civilization is laudatory to the point of a standing ovation.
We are helpfully informed that the play is based on the Greek myth but that it is influenced by the Umbrella Revolution of 2014 in Hong Kong and the infamous Tiananmen Square protest of 1989. Both events were significant demonstrations against oppression and are worthy of remembrance especially since nothing has changed and in fact the situation has become worse.
In Sophocles’ Antigone, perhaps the best known version of the story, Antigone’s brothers Polyneikes and Eteocles kill each other in battle. Eteocles is fighting for King Kreon and is a hero. Polyneikes is fighting against him and is a traitor whose body should be left unburied to be eaten by the dogs. The brothers do not appear in the play .Antigone defies the king’s edict by giving a ritual burial to Polyneikes and her punishment is to be walled up in a cave to die.
Ho keeps most of the characters in Sophocles’ play and adds the two brothers as characters adapting their names to Teo (Aldrin Bundoc) and Neikes (Jeff Yung). Kreon (John Ng) is the father of the two brothers and of course Antigone (Jasmine Chen) and Ismene (Rachel Mutombo).
All the characters, including Tiresia (Soo Garay), and Haemon (Simon Gagnon) are also a part of the public and crowd of protesters that Ho calls Chorus in a bow to Ancient Greek tragedy.
The uprising is against the Supreme Leader’s regime and the Re-Education Centre. The objective of the regime is to control not just what people do or say but how and what they think. It is the most terrifying type of oppression.
Kreon and Teo support the Supreme Leader. The brothers are killed and Kreon forbids anyone from giving his son Neikes a proper burial. Antigone with her friend Haemon disobey his edict.
This is a fast moving and very dramatic production. The attention of the teenagers in the audience is never allowed to lag. Red flags and umbrellas are constantly visible, there is combat and a great deal of energy generated on the stage. One can sense the drama of protests that we see in snippets on television enacted convincingly in front of us. Even if the high school students in the audience cannot relate to protests in Hong Kong or Tiananmen Square, they can certainly relate to local marches and demonstrations.
I do have a problem with the grafting of the Greek myth to modern oppressive regimes’ indoctrination and mind control of people. There are countless Antigones but simply giving the name of an ancient rebel to the play and Greek names to the characters adds confusion rather than clarity or focus. The characters in Ho’s plays would have done just as well with simple Chinese or other modern names without the muddle of the blind seer Tiresias becoming auntie Tiresia. Very well done by Garay, by the way.
Directors Stephen Colella and Karen Gilodo do the play in a theatre-in-the-round which adds to the intensity and energy of the performance. The cast as Chorus and in the various roles do superb work.
On an optimistic note, maybe the youngsters will go home and read Wikipedia about Sophocles and Antigone and, (why not?) even read Ancient Greek Tragedy.
Antigone: 方 by Jeff Ho continues until May 16. 2019 at the Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. 416 862-2222.
James Karas is the Senior Editor – Culture of The Greek Press. www.greekpress.ca