As the blue night lifts and the sun peeks over the rubble and dust-covered hills, Ismene stands alone, weeping. “I cannot resist life,” she pleads with the shadow of her sister.
This is the heart-wrenching ending of Antigone Now, in which we see Ismene weep for her fallen brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, and her late sister, Antigone, all of whom won’t see the brassy gold sunrise again.
Written by the award-winning playwright Melissa Cooper, Antigone Now is a modern theatrical adaptation of Sophocles’ infamous Greek tragedy. The ancient story follows our headstrong protagonist, Antigone, who must survive living in the war-torn country of Thebes. After her brothers die on the battlefield, her uncle, Creon, assumes the vacant throne. Creon’s first law as King prevents the burial of Antigone’s brother, Polynices, who sent enemy troops into Thebes and betrayed his land.
Despite her uncle’s law, Antigone is determined to lay her brother to rest. Her personality, combined with the love for her brother, drives her to act against the state and risk execution.
However, once Creon becomes aware of Antigone’s actions, he sentences her to death by starvation. For Creon, the law is the law and even family cannot be excused. It’s only after Antigone is sentenced to death that Creon realizes his immoral ruling. But by then, it’s too late.
And that brings us to Ismene, who’s weeping after losing her sister, Antigone. Despite the tragedies surrounding her, Ismene envisions a future of moral growth that, before her sister’s defiance, did not seem possible.
Last week, UTM’s English and Drama Student Society (EDSS) put on its own virtual performance of Antigone Now. Directed by Anthony Palermo, a second-year Theatre and Drama Studies specialist, the EDSS rendition of Antigone Now couldn’t be more relevant to our world’s current state.
Hannah Mitchell, assuming the titular role, offered a tragically beautiful portrayal of a courageous girl who’s pressured by increasing threats and destruction. Antigone symbolizes those in our modern day who refuse to back down against the power structures that threaten our democracy and humanity.
When Kate Ferrin, the EDSS artistic director, was choosing a play for the program’s mainstage production, she sought a show that would apply to both the past and the present. One day, Palermo pitched Antigone Now and Ferrin found what she was looking for. “I was surprised by how much this story mirrored things happening currently,” says Ferrin.
Both Palermo and Ferrin wanted to emphasize the “now” in Antigone Now. “I wanted to be clear that this is Antigone’s story done right now, at this point in 2020,” says Palermo.
Not only was it vital to represent modern day struggles, but it was also important that the messages affected audiences virtually, just as they would during a live performance.
With the pandemic, putting on a theatrical performance posed unique problems. For Palermo, the most difficult problem was conveying the relation of bodies in space. “My direction usually relies on the ability to create relationships and the dynamics between characters through how they interact physically, and when that isn’t possible in a traditional sense, you must find other avenues to display that.”
Despite this being one of the major struggles in directing the show, the virtual format helped solidify the message that a 2000-year-old story can come full circle in 2020. Nada Madi and Chelsea Mathieu, acting as the Chorus, contrasted modern day with old-age storytelling, with one holding a printed photograph, and the other holding an iPhone.
The cast and creative team not only contrasted these two different time periods, they also combined them to showcase their similarities. Throughout the play, Madi would show half the image on the iPhone while Mathieu would display the other half on paper. The simple act of merging two Zoom screens cemented the stark similarities and differences between past and present. The online platform also allowed the creators to integrate animation and graphic design during the performance—all of which crafted a truly immersive experience for the viewer.
The EDSS’s Antigone Now wasn’t merely a live performance transferred to an online platform. It was tailored. “If this was going to be an online show, I wanted to create a performance made for an online production, one that couldn’t be done on-stage,” says Palermo.
Being performed virtually also made the show more accessible to wider audiences. As Ferrin says, “We managed to make theatre engaging for people at home.” Not only was it more accessible, it was the most profitable performance in EDSS history. With its success, the creators wanted to give back to underrepresented communities, and so they donated a portion of proceeds to charities promoting Native Women in the Arts.
Antigone Now’s relevance comes from the startling realization that our modern world isn’t as advanced as we thought. The frighteningly accurate similarities of power, greed, and corruption between Sophocles’ play and our modern world are a wakeup call. We must make our voices heard, repair an increasingly divided country, and confront a corrupt politician who refuses to step down.
So, the question then becomes, what can we learn from Antigone Now? How can we take what we know of the past and what the future could become, and twist our fate in some desired manner? There are no obvious answers. What we do know is this: power rests in the hands of the people.
Just as Antigone’s simple act of burying her brother caused a socio-political domino effect, we must also seize the moments to stand up for social justice and speak out for a better tomorrow.