One of Greek tragedy’s foremost concerns is the contemplation of polarities. In a part of Sophocles’s Antigone, Ismene tells her sister, “You have a warm heart for cold things”, In ancient Greek culture, warm things are alive, cold ones dead; but for Antigone, now, the fire of her life and self has its source in that cold thing, her brother’s corpse; and when she gives up her life wanting to bury it, burning with this wish, her heart, dying, becomes cold. The unity of opposites, the separability of truth: Greek tragedy.
Antigone wants to bury her brother, Polyneices. The previous night he, with an army, attacking his home city of Thebes which has seven gates, at the seventh, fighting one-on-one against his brother, Eteocles, defending the city, died. With two simultaneous blows, like on a frieze, falling, each killing the other, together at once, they died. Creon, whose role here as in Oedipus is to walk into the ruler’s part when the stage is empty and figure out what must come next, commands that Eteocles should be buried with all honours; but that Polyneices, who after all has just led an army against his own city, must lie bare on the ground to be eaten and waste away. The penalty for burying him is death. Simply, Antigone’s plot is her decision to defy this order, which, because Creon made it, is the law.
The pair of Antigone and Creon have captivated among others Hegel, Brecht, Judith Butler and Séamus Heaney. For ancient Athens, a handmaid’s tale sort of city, Antigone was far over the edge just as Creon was too much in the middle. That they were interested, in Athens, in her at all shows this: the pious and the profane, the tyrant and the resistant, need each other in obscure ways; they are dance-partners.
In Sophocles’s play there is no better proof of this than the side characters. Antigone’s sister, Ismene, and Creon’s son and Antigone’s husband-to-be, Haemon – stupid, reckless, caught in the middle – are equals of most of us. Teiresias, the blind seer, is like everyone when they know something pays with his powerlessness to alter it. Each is forced to where they end up by this secret, centrifugal thing, this law, which, when Antigone and Creon do not back down from each other (and she knows this better than him and mocks him for it), is what they commit to. ‘You have a warm heart for cold things’.
But the play’s best and most elusive opposition is between the action and the chorus: ‘the play’ (characters and dialogue) and the poem, in a special dialect and metre, which a group of dancing and well-dressed paid amateur actors performed between scenes.
Maybe it is better to say that the play is between verses of the poem. The chorus has lines such as “There are lots of astounding things and none more astounding than humanity”, and “Wandering far and wide, hope for many people is a dream” and “Love, who sweeps down through herds.”. The chorus, an ideal unity of the civic and religious elements, the poetic and speculative forms of thought, the individual and the group, of which it may be said that the Festival Dionysia in Athens, where the plays were first performed, was a continuous and blundering examination, has ensured that every straightforward attempt at Greek-style tragedy from the Romans to this day feels like a copy of an original.
Which makes them hard to adapt. X’ntigone (Zan-ti-guh-nee)’s biggest problem is that it does not decide whether to make the effort. On the one hand, the characters keep the original Greek names, which in modern mouths are like elements of the periodic table rather than words which a parent would call an infant; they discuss offhandedly Thebes, Persians, Oedipus, Laius; on the other, X’ntigone herself (who explains that the X signifies unpredictability, and is an homage based on – a faulty understanding of – ancient Persian mathematics), rejecting all the stories of ancient Greece, loudly and emptily says: “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House.”. The plot is different: the focus is a pandemic with the government and rebels both carrying around strains of the virus in test-tubes to inflict it on each other. Stripped to a discussion between X’ntigone and Creon, who both know all of this, but must repeat it so that the audience do, the play wallows in forced exposition, making its characters seem like they are inventions.
Still, it is tough to divine what is going on. It is hard to shake the sense that this play wants everything but achieves nothing – Greek tragedy, Covid-19, Audre Lorde – the worst of all worlds, a play of ticked boxes authored by committee.
The actors, Eloise Stevenson and Michael James Ford, do well with what they have. The problem is that the struggle between Creon and X’ntigone does not go anywhere, as if it was Blofeld versus Amanda Gorman in combat boots. X’ntigone is Good, Creon a Supervillain: there are no surprises. Near the beginning, twice, Creon is dismissive about non-binary people; later he even says that “Laius drained the swamp”. The only twists are two “I knew about your plan all along” moments when X’ntigone and Creon each give ‘Order-66’-type instructions to the government and rebels through iProducts. The set and lighting in this production, designed by Ciaran Bagnall, are striking and interesting: for the whole of this production X’ntigone is imprisoned in a glass quarantine-cell. Unfortunately so is the performance.
X’ntigone (after Sophocles), written by Darren Murphy and directed by Emma Jordan is playing at the Peacock, Abbey St Dublin 1, from 16 to 26 March 2022