Antigone by William Head on Stage WHoS October 6-November 4, 2017. A review.

Antigone by William Head on Stage WHoS October 6-November 4, 2017. A review.

In their 36th year, for their 57th production, the actors of William Head on Stage (WHoS), the only remaining prison theatre company operating in Canada, return to a text after several years of devising original work (Sleeping Giants-2016, Here: A Captive Odyssey-2015, Time Waits for No One-2014, Fractured Fables-2013).

And, what a challenging text it is—Antigone by Sophocles, translated by retired VIU professor Ian Johnston, who has given the audience the gift of a script that is direct, modern and easily understandable.

Antigone raises enormous philosophical and ethical questions—is it better to obey the gods, or to obey the law of man—particularly if the law is perceived to be unjust.

Antigone’s (J.T.) brothers have both been killed in battle over who will rule the city of Thebes, one—Eteocles—a hero, one—Polyneices—a traitor. Creon (E.G.), her uncle, who ascends to the throne, forbids the burial of Polyneices. Antigone defies him. Further complicating the story is the fact she is betrothed to Haemon (M.A.A.), Creon’s son.

True to Greek tradition, in this version, directed by Eliza Gardner, the women’s roles are played by men (for the first time that I am aware—for in the past, women volunteers have stepped in).

Costume designer R.F. (who also designed the apparel in last year’s Sleeping Giants) pulls out all the stops in creating fantastical garments. For the women, he employs gauzy and luxurious fabric that moves gracefully and subtly with the considered and careful gestures of Antigone (J.T. conveys the perfect note of stubborn obduracy), her sister Ismene (S.D. is whimsical and insouciant) and Eurydice (Creon’s wife and Hameon’s mother)—a role he also takes on, portraying enormous dignity and gentleness.  Antigone, as befits convention, is a heroine dressed all in white, with sparkly and luminous texture to her clothing and makeup.  Ismene is clad in vibrant red; Eurydice in regal purple.

A decision was made early in the development process to replicate the original Greek staging by employing masks, which are truly works of art (costume and props crew R.F., J.T., K.E. J.T., J.S., J.W., Patti Faulconbridge, Kathleen Greenfield), each one unique and suited to the character—some foolish, some menacing, some stoic, some wise. Men bear armour and kilted skirts comprised of a multitude of leather pieces that emphasize their swagger when they stride, about—Creon is imposing, Hameon brash and brazen, the bodyguards (R.K. and J.L.) with an added layer of armour, are frightening.  The chorus of Theban elders (P.Y., S.W., D.N., D.H., R.S., E.G., D.K.) sport crazy quilt jackets adorned with accents, covered heads and crouched postures conveying a sense of thuggishness and adherence to social order.  Guards A.C. and B.K. add a note of comic relief as they try to deflect blame from themselves.

To compliment these elements, Marites Frazer has designed tall backdrop pieces that pivot to reveal various settings—the palace, outside the walls where Antigone buries her brother, the city at night—with abstract paint-splattered backdrops recalling the science-fiction theme (painting crew Tori Isaak, M.A.A., J.Y., J.J., B.K., B.L.). Under the lights (designer Victoria Isaak), fluorescent colours pop and the night sky twinkles in its immensity. Carolyn Moon’s sound design creates interludes of calm—the pastoral sounds of birds and cows at the opening—amid the ongoing interpersonal conflicts.

Original sound compositions by Sully Beatz accompany the chorus as they rap and dance around the stage (choreographer—Sylvia Knapp). In these contemporary renderings, the chorus became a cohesive ensemble and a powerful force—as if one, at times proud of the king and their obedience to him, at others, coming to question the reasonableness of his decrees.

The WHoS ensemble sollicited proposals from directors for this year’s production, and decided on Eliza Gardiner based, in part, on her applied theatre background and restorative justice work.  Gardiner has pulled remarkable performances from this cast—most of whom appear for the first time onstage. At the talk-back after the show, it was revealed that there are only four cast members who have performed with WHoS before.  The decision to re-write the ending, and provide a restorative twist, breathes new life into this horrific tragedy.

The story was written thousands of years ago, but parallels are evident, even today.  The cast, under Gardiner’s direction, battle back and forth as they argue the points of love and loyalty, power and obedience, justice and revenge. Above all, they are stuck in roles in which they may not wish to continue, but have no way out—Antigone by her willfulness seals her fate, Hameon is bound by duty to his father, Creon desires power too much to back down—even when the prophet Tiresias (also M.A.A.) brings warnings, Eurydice is consumed by grief. In the end, only Ismene has the courage to step outside an emotional reaction and cry “enough”, bringing an end to the vicious cycle of retribution.

Once again, through tremendous time, effort, skill and talent, the men of William Head on Stage, bring relevant thought-provoking theatre to the stage.

Antigone, a sci-fi remount of the tragedy by Sophocles with a restorative twist
Revised, designed and performed by the men of William Head on Stage
Directed by Eliza Gardiner
William Head Prison, 6000 William Head Road
October 6-November 4, 2017
Tickets $20 in advance through Ticket Rocket, online, in person (101-804 Broughton Street) or by phone 250 590 6291
10% of proceeds go directly to Need 2, a local charity committed ot ending the tragedy of suicide in our communities.

Gates Open at 6:15pm
Gates Close at 7:15pm
Show Begins at 7:30pm
Absolutely no late-comers

W.H.o.S. is located inside a Federal Prison.
Must be 19+ to enter. You may be electronically scanned and
searched by a dog. Personal belongings (purses, wallets, cell phones, money, etc) are forbidden and must be left in your car.
No smoking materials are permitted.

Directed by Eliza Gardiner
Choreography by Silvia Knapp
Choreography Assistant Jeni Luther
Sound Design by Carolyn Moon
Original Music Composition by BD
Lighting Design by Tori Isaak 
Set Design by Marites Frazer
Costume Assistant Patti Faulconbridge
Actor Coaching by Scott Wilson, Tasha Diamant
Guest Facilitator Lauren Jerke
And Student Volunteers  from Vancouver Island University

Further reading:

Disclaimer: I was provided a complimentary ticket to the opening night of Antigone.

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