Can classical works of drama engage and grip a young, modern
audience? Richard Coe lets Splendid Productions into his school
to deliver a performance and workshop on Brecht’s Antigone
from Teaching Drama Summer Term 1 2007 (courtesy of Rhinegold Publishing Ltd.)
I first came across Splendid Productions when they toured with their version of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which has been recently resurrected for the National Theatre South Bank Festival, and was immediately struck by their professionalism, energy and love for theatre. After watching their latest production of Antigone and observing them for an after-show workshop I felt compelled to spread the word. The company arrive with no pretension. Unlike other companies I have used in the past, Splendid settle in without fuss or fanfare, encouraging students to watch them setting out the stage and getting props, costume and technical equipment ready, talking to them as they do so.
Mal Smith, actor and adapter of the piece, begins the workshop by stating his intention clearly to take a classic ‘boring’ Greek play and translate it into something relevant, dynamic and political in a modern sense. In fact, the piece came from a residency Smith did in Oldham with students who helped research and structure the first performances. The production opens with a cheesy, lively song, written by Ben Hales, and a dance number, which plays on the students’ fears of Antigone being ‘a boring old tragedy’. By using this device, the group immediately get their audience laughing and feeling comfortable as well as setting the tone for the rest of the play; this will be no ordinary Greek tragedy. This introduction was a hit with my Year 13 students in particular; having watched the piece at the start of their devising process for Edexcel Unit 4, they all used song and dance to begin their own work. The songs were studied for their self-referential quality, creating a Verfremdungseffekt, and their impact on the audience.
Next up was the idea of choice, which I felt was a vital component in the group’s production. Brecht focuses closely on the choices that characters will make and, ultimately, this should influence the choices the audience make about how to live their lives.
So how did Splendid’s production of Antigone highlight this concept? First of all the main characters are portrayed as archetypes. At the start of the play, using video projection, Antigone and Creon are introduced with a list of archetypal qualities that are in conflict with one another. For example, Splendid Productions repeat scene 4, where Antigone and Creon discuss their actions, immediately to show two completely different points of view on Antigone’s archetypal qualities. In the first interpretation, Kerry from Splendid underplays Antigone; she makes little eye contact, and is still and frightened by the strength of Creon. The audience are made to feel for her plight. In the repetition, Kerry becomes ‘mighty Antigone’, using a repeated gestus, which signifies her defiance and strength of will. To further illustrate these conflicting interpretations of the same fragment of dialogue, the lines ‘I did not think your decree strong enough to overrule the unwritten, unchangeable laws of God and Heaven. Of course I knew that I would have to die’, were played with tears in the eyes in the initial rendering and then shouted in defiance in the repeated scene. Thus, as an audience our sympathies and understandings of an individual’s actions are questioned and judged. My Year 13 group seemed highly influenced by this for their devised theatre work, choosing to concentrate on environmental issues from various viewpoints. In making the usual villains become heroes and vice versa, our perceptions and prejudices were challenged.
No one escapes Splendid’s satirical impulses in this production. Antigone is a character the group have empathy with, but the actors challenge her constant use of God as an excuse for her actions. Scene 8 is introduced as ‘God and government working together’ but turns out to be a song called ‘God made me do it’. Guess whom the actors are portraying here? Yes indeed, the song satirises the dealings of Bush, Blair and Saddam Hussein. While this scene is funny, particularly because of Mal Smith’s brilliant Tony Blair impression, it does raise a valid and interesting point. Who dictates what is right and wrong and how do we make these decisions?
These workshops were expertly delivered by all members of the group. On top of that, Splendid Productions produce fantastic teaching materials for all of their productions. I would recommend them wholeheartedly for their great work, superb attitude and, above all, passion for theatre.
Richard Coe, Head of Drama, Rochester Grammar School for Girls