Taking on Sophocles with electric abandon might not be the dream of just any drama graduate. The material is difficult, linguistically, morally and chronologically. The language is complex and bloody and some of the issues it embraces are impossible to get your head around without your heart (or belly) wanting to explode. But clearly none of this has daunted the young cast of seven – some of them in their professional debuts – in this absolutely astonishing work, which immediately raises the bar for theatre of this nature.
Just Antigone clocks in at under an hour, but the mesmerising focus and the sophisticated balance between contemporary gestures, asides to the audience and the horror of the moral double crossing of the original plunges you into not only the internecine and devilish politics of ancient Greece, but also the tragedy of human frailty in the sight of ambition, power and one-upmanship.
The cast switch and change roles and genders as the generational tale, replete with the interjections of a chorus, unfurls, and the context of Oedipus, the father of Antigone, who tragically lands up killing his father and marrying his mother, is described with clarity, levity and wit, which never teeters into disrespect for the tradition or the circumstances. There is a resonance in this work with the meshed cultural texture that Neil Coppen achieved in his recent production of Animal Farm, blending time and idiosyncrasy in a way that hones the legibility of difficult material, but Just Antigone slips in and out of contemporary political phraseology and reference. It doesn’t hurt the work. It keeps you engaged.
Antigone (Nyakallo Motloung) is a loyal sister and a feisty challenge to her egotist uncle King Creon (Jóvan Muthray), who is at times so wrapped up in his own sense of authority that he becomes emotionally blind and quite frightening. Muthray’s delivery of this role is polished and convincing. And opposite him, Motloung is articulate and passionate. There’s a balance achieved here which is so fine and so much about trust and a sense of artistic authority that it takes your breath away.
In many respects, the unequivocal star of this work is Mlindeli Zondi – who you may have seen in Making Mandela – as the hapless Haemon, son of Creon and lover of Antigone. Torn between loyalty to his father and an understanding of his father’s deep moral flaws, not to mention his love for his girl who has dared to challenge Creon, he is left no alternative but to die at his own hand. The emotional and spiritual torsion central to this character is articulated with a great sense of finesse, never overacting, but oft overarching as a profound and intelligent catalyst to the tale.
But it hardly seems fair to isolate only three performers. The full ensemble feels dangerously beautiful in its concatenation of text, gesture and sinister nuance. Individually and collectively, they rise and soar with one another, dancing on the edge of the scripted text and expressing horror and catastrophe as they intermingle and dovetail. It’s a beautifully directed piece of work, and while the screaming which is necessary in the tale fills POPArts’s smallish tight space with harsh metallic fierceness, that might make you want to flee, the cast engages with the monumental reality of performing something as old as Sophocles with thoughtful wisdom.
Neither paralysed with respect, nor awash with hipness, under the directorial hand of Mahlatsi Mongonyana and Billy Langa, the cast offer Sophocles’s words, thoughts and reflections – and his indictments cast on the immorality and filth of society – in a palatable and fine context that is accessible and provocative, making you realise there is nothing quite as fine as a spot of Greek tragedy in central Johannesburg on a week night.
Arguably, this company of performers has what it takes to develop into the kind of repertory theatre that is capable of defining the industry. Watch each of these names: they have a great future ahead of them.
- Just Antigone is adapted from Sophocles’s Antigone by Mahlatsi Mokgonyana and directed by Mokgonyana and Billy Langa. It is performed by Binnie Christie, Sanelisiwe Jobodwana, Campbell Jessica Meas, Nyakallo Motloung, Jovan Muthray, Star Tlali and Mlindeli Zoni at POP Arts Theatre in central Johannesburg until February 21. Visit popartcentre.co.za
- See my review of Mlindeli Zondi’s previous performance in Gauteng here.