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OTG's production of Antigone at the Oxford Playhouse produced a plethora of reviews.They appeared in the Oxford Times, Daily Information, What's On Stage, Oxford Theatre Review and Oxford Fringe Review.
picture from the performance

Chorus in a spot, Antigone in a spot of bother...
(picture: Felicity Peacock)

A gallery of pictures from the production is available to view.

OXFORD TIMES - Nicola Lisle

Jean Anouilh’s Antigone is a play of conflicts – conflicts between characters, conflicting principles and ideas, and the lead characters’ own inner conflicts. As with the Greek myth on which the tragedy is based, the story opens in the shadow of conflict, as the city of Thebes emerges from a civil war in which both of Antigone’s brothers have been killed.

The new king, Creon – Antigone’s uncle – has given one brother, Eteocles, a state burial, but the body of Polynices has been left to rot as a warning to insurgents. Despite Creon’s decree that anyone attempting to bury the body will be executed, Antigone decides to give her brother the burial she feels he deserves, thus setting in motion the chain of events that makes tragedy inevitable.

The Oxford Theatre Guild’s production highlights the conflicts and tragedies of the play with great clarity, revealing the many layers of plot and characters in a manner both compelling and gripping.

Jenni Mackenzie’s Antigone is perhaps a little understated in the first half, but is nevertheless finely drawn, and we can identify with her wish to give her brother a decent burial, if not her stubborn determination to risk her own life to do so. She allows the character to develop strongly in the second half during her showdown with Creon, when her willingness to die for her beliefs becomes increasingly obsessive; ultimately her apparently noble gesture becomes a rather hollow victory. Joseph Kenneway’s Creon (pictured with Jenni Mackenzie) is a masterpiece of characterisation; this is a powerful and solid performance, in which the supposedly tyrannical ruler is revealed to be a man in turmoil, who imposes laws he hates out of a sense of duty. His flawed thinking costs him dearly. Other strong performances come from Nick Quartley as the Chorus, and Adam Potterton, who injects some comic relief as the First Guard.

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DAILY INFORMATION - Andrea Hopkins

This is a complex, provoking and profoundly ambivalent play – supposedly a clear critique of tyranny, the play was first performed – by permission – in Nazi-occupied Paris in February 1944. In that context, we are told, French audiences could identify Antigone’s heroic resistance to Creon’s oppressive regime with their own more or less passive resistance to the Nazis. But that rather begs the question of what the Nazis in the audience got out of it; Anouilh was not chucked in prison for writing this and continued to live comfortably in the public eye for the duration of the occupation. As this production makes very clear, the play is far from identifying Antigone as the goody and Creon as the baddy.

Thebes has just been devastated by a civil war between Eteocles and Polynices, the two sons of Oedipus. They killed one another in single combat. The new king, Oedipus’ brother Creon, gives honourable burial to Eteocles, and decrees that Polynices’ body must be left to rot outside the city walls. Anyone attempting to give him proper burial rites will be put to death. Antigone is betrothed to the king’s son Haemon; they are in love and have every prospect of a happy life. But Antigone decides that her duty to her dead brother is more important than her own happiness and life, and decides to bury him even though she fully accepts that it will mean her death.

Antigone is in some ways very like a medieval virgin martyr – absolutely committed to her choice of defying the male authority figure who alternately tries to cajole and bully her into doing something she knows to be wrong. So far, so good. But like many virgin martyrs Antigone goes way beyond what a normal human being would consider to be reasonable in her perverse insistence that death and duty are infinitely preferable to life and compromise. She is in fact a very irritating personality, and as with the virgin martyrs, one feels a sneaking sympathy for her baffled persecutor, especially as Creon has no desire to execute her and is prepared to go to considerable lengths to save her life. But only if she gives in.

The contrast between an absolute, adolescent view of bravery and a nuanced, adult view of it was beautifully pointed in the casting of Jenni Mackenzie as Antigone and Joseph Kenneway as Creon. A slight, frail, girlish presence with a high squeaky voice and a cascade of Pre-Raphaelite auburn curls, this Antigone’s appearance and demeanour mask indomitable will, terrifying clarity of intellect, and a natural aversion to authority – the perfect terrorist. Creon is brilliantly personated by Joseph Kenneway as an overworked and harassed professional king, his crumpled, careworn face bearing witness that he much prefers negotiation and manipulation to straightforward butchery. His agenda is to bring stability to a city-state torn apart by the recent civil war, and he understands that leading a community and imposing order on it is a thankless task. He is far from being an evil brute, and is even the lesser bully of the two. Alistair Nunn is a likeable and sympathetic Haemon.

The one-man Chorus who introduces us to the legendary events behind the play and all the characters was played with effortless and masterful authority by Nick Quartley, his delivery light, deft and ironic, his face showing a detached, Olympian majesty. He flatly states that pretty much every character is doomed and that what distinguishes tragedy from melodrama is that there is simply no possibility of a happy ending – the characters are in the grip of forces beyond their control.

Anouilh brilliantly gives us a counterpoint to this statement by having Creon almost succeed in persuading his wayward neice that she should agree to his cover-up of her involvement. The audience has been warned that this cannot happen, but so strong is the desire for life and happiness that we almost believe he can change her mind. Anouilh generally stayed pretty close to the original Greek of Sophocles, for instance in having all the major events happen off-stage, but one of his most significant innovations was in this climactic conflict of wills in the second Act between Antigone and Creon. I won’t reveal how he does it, as it’s one of the great pleasures of this superbly dramatic text.

This is an outstanding production of a play that has clear resonance with modern times. Thoroughly recommended.

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WHAT'S ON STAGE - Simon Tavener

In over fifty years of theatrical activity, Oxford Theatre Guild has garnered a reputation for being one of the strongest amateur companies in the country. They certainly have never lacked ambition – and in choosing to perform the Anouilh version of Sophocles’ tragic masterpiece, they are living up to that reputation.

Director Janet Bolam’s choice of translation (by Lewis Galantiere) is an interesting one. It treads the fine line between the artificial and naturalistic very well. It makes good use of relatively modern idioms whilst never forgetting the poetic roots of the text.

Less successful, perhaps, is her decision to pervade the production with the presence of surveillance cameras and recorded footage. This device is fast becoming a modern cliché - particularly following the recent Doran/Tennant Hamlet in Stratford and more recently on the BBC. The use of video is not overwhelming but often serves to punctuate rather than enhance the drama.

Some of her casting decisions were outstanding. Nick Quartley gives a magisterial performance in the key role of Chorus. All too often audiences can switch off during long narrative speeches; here we were completely swept up in his story-telling. He uses the language to his best advantage and makes sure that every word counted.

Joe Kenneway brings a much-needed humanity to the conflicted Creon. Always alert to the text, he brings his key duologue with Antigone to life with some strong characterisation and emotional honesty. Similarly effective performances come from Lisa Barnett (Nurse), Joshua Hall (Messenger) and Adam Potterton (First Guard).

A tragedy such as this rests on the shoulders of the central character. Antigone is a very complex individual and the audience must be able to engage with her throughout. Jenni Mackenzie captures the essence of a little girl lost very well and cuts a pleasing stage figure. However, she has a tendency to speak rather too quickly at times which leads to a number of lines failing to be projected as clearly as they might. Hopefully this is simply a matter of her getting used to a new venue and as the week progresses, her performance will grow to fill the space more effectively.

This is a sincere and genuine production of an interesting text. It shows that, at their best, amateur performers can rival their professional counterparts.

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Oxford Theatre Review - Abhishek Bhattacharyya

‘The play is on. Antigone has been caught. For the first time in her life, little Antigone is going to be able to be herself.’

Sophocles’ Theban plays, of which Antigone is chronologically the third and final play, makes powerful use of the classic Greek tragic trope of fate – ‘In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone’s destiny is known.’ Anouilh’s adaptation self consciously develops this, pushing characters to corners and thereby liberating their voices. Creon, the dictator and Antigone, the rebel, both stretched to the margins of their abilities by each other emerge merely as players, performers of circumscribed roles, people whose death and suffering do not interrupt the play, or the cabinet meeting.

This is the play, first staged during the Nazi occupation of France, that the Oxford Theatre Guild decided to stage, in times that have their own share of brutal, dictatorial (or shall we say ‘terrorist’?) regimes. Yet, the play was markedly shorn of any critique of contemporary society by direct reference, a decision that really stood out, given the play’s potential and history. Simple things like costume and set changes, or even a brief reference in the handout could have changed things radically. There was also the opportunity of moving beyond staging the dictator as fascist (in a historically located sense) – which the costumes did hint towards – something that’s almost become a stereotype by now. Even the video screening, which tended to be laughed at by the audience, could have been better used for such referencing. Bereft of that political charge, easily acquired, the play was left to stand by itself – the tragic almost staged in an ‘other’ place, the political somewhat aesthetised.

Yet, this is certainly not something new to the history of English literature or theatre – as for example with Milton’s induction into the canon of greats, by Addison and Steele, by depoliticising him – and that certainly need not cut down on one’s appreciation of the play. There is a lot to look forward to in the Guild’s production of Antigone. For one, it is a visual treat. Jimmy Keene’s sets are not extravagant – just very beautifully done. Doric columns, broken Doric columns, steps and a table – all papered by an appealing pattern, managed to create a powerful sense of space that was adeptly filled by the actors, in different ways. For example, the initial tableau was in itself visually compelling, with the actors scattered across stage, tied together by the moving Chorus. Each specific individual’s position had been carefully worked out – with Ismene sitting in front of a Doric column with a mobile phone appealing the most to me – highlighting with that one character the dynamics of theatricality of the production.

The strength of the beginning also came from Nick Quartley’s Chorus. Though at brief moments he seemed unsure about his hands, his performance throughout, especially his vocal delivery, was captivating. Given his skill in moving across stage and keeping the audience captivated, with or without anyone else on stage, it was in fact surprising to see him deployed via the video screen for the scene with Creon late in the play. While the voice reverberations thereby added were all fine, I can’t help thinking he would have done a much more powerful job on stage. The problem, of course, with these video recordings is also that theatre practitioners are often not great film directors – and that was certainly the case with this production, especially contrasted with its otherwise powerfully visualised stage.

The white cloth liberally used for the stage also worked very well in conjunction with the most creative lighting I have seen in Oxford theatre this academic year. David Long uses a variety of shades, all of them visually highly elegant, even when they are changing, and comfortably supplements the sets in creating a sense of space that can be fluidly occupied and transformed. Bill Moulford does not overuse the sound effects and manages to keep it powerful and evocative when it is used.

The other performance that stood out in the play was of Joseph Kenneway as Creon. The character is carefully built up through the play and he manages to stage a variety of emotions – love, hate, sorrow, resignation – in quickly changing circumstances with great conviction – giving his best in the long argument with Antigone. Jenni Mackenzie as Antigone, however, left a lot to be desired. While she must be complemented for managing to stage the vulnerability of Antigone, the aspect I would have imagined more difficult to perform, she severely cut down on the aggressive aspects of the character. For one, clearer enunciation might have helped. So for example in the early scene with the nurse, to choose one where the aggression is supposed to be least evident, she neither emerged as a broken down girl who is otherwise confident, nor an otherwise shy girl trying to firm up to a situation (and both aspects could have been present), and I couldn’t help feeling that she was holding herself back, believing in some field of choice (thereby confusing the characterisation), instead of experiencing the release of being definitively assigned a role. Her voice did not feel like one cornered, not possessing either the defiance or quiet confidence of one who would be. Developing this might help the aggressive in her character to emerge better, for it is after all the aggression of one cornered. As the play developed and Antigone got further cornered, this in fact happened, and Jenni finished off with a powerful volley of arguments, that only reconfirmed my half time impressions. A better build-up to it would have added significantly to the play.

All in all therefore, it might be well worth your money to go to the Oxford guild’s production of this very powerful play. In spite of the production’s different shortcomings it remains both a visual treat and a compelling narrative. Tied together by a powerful Chorus, the characters come together, perform roles and leave only the husks and the soldiers behind – beautifully capturing the systemic critique that Anouilh’s play builds up by presenting dictator and rebel coupled together.

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Oxford Fringe Review - PL
Set in a 21st Century Thebes, this adaptation by Oxford Theatre Guild played to an almost packed Oxford Playhouse. From the laptop on Creon's desk to filmed security cameras observing guards, we are presented visually with a mix of ancient and modern.

Janet Bolam's direction of this Oxford Theatre Guild cast is an impressive blend of direct, accessible theatre presenting a clear narrative that draws the audience in right from the first moment.

Antingone is "a woman who doesn't want to understand", a "tense, sallow, wilfull girl", determined to bury her brother, knowing her death to be inevitable. Creon is bound by his inability to step free of seeing his office as a duty, above all to the law, and not his own inner sense of freedom and rightness, a freedom he left behind as a child; a freedom Antigone wishes never to abandon, even unto death.

The use of the chorus to foresee the inevitability of the fates of each of the characters is, wonderfully, not a spoiler at all, but a means of the production fulfilling itself as a piece of highly watchable story. This, we were are told, is not melodrama, where fate is something to be negotiated with; this is tragegy where there is a calmness in the face of even inevitable death, and we are all merely the players in its necessary unfolding.

Anhouilh's play, which was tolerated by the Nazi's inoccuped France, despite the obvious parallels to be drawn between Creon (the dictator) and Antigone (the Resistor), is ultimately a play about the tranquility at the heart of tragedy. Creon is portrayed as a trapped king, unfree who, despite all his power in Thebes, Antigone taunts him: "All you can do is have me killed".. To which Creon replies: "Take pity on me and live".

Ultimately is Creon the pragmatist, the leader who believes that a dose of firm control is a short-term investment in a longer-term, more lasting peace. Or is he, as Antigone would have it, a coward?

The set is worthy of the professional stage, the lighting pitch-perfect, the whole company have achieved strong professional standard in a production that wouldn't look out of place on a National Theatre regional tour. Of course there are places where the physicality needs more commitment and believability, where lines stumble a little, But overall, we're drawn in right from the start, the stillness of an actively engaged audience bore this out right to this end. There was hardly a cough throughout.

Antigone is physically slight, vocally larger, fearful and "a little too young for what she has to go through" This red-headed Antigone, played by Jennie Mackenzie, is an actor with a promising future. She needs to slow down in places and be better paced by her director. But in the main, she pulls of the part with impressive emotional commitment, clarity and charisma. Joseph Kennway's Creon is suitably officious and angry when he needs to be. The scene between him and Antigone where he attempts to persuade her to drop her quest for death, is very strong and grips right until the end.

On the more negative side, the use of film is a bit clunky and doesn't always flow seamlessly in and out of the live stage action. Also there isn't much on film that couldn't have been achieved with as much, if not more, effect on stage. It's a bold attempt at weaving in film and the attempt to create a Big Brother feel is partly successful. However the shots of guards marching could have been just as effectively realised live, as could the moment when Antigone is taken down to her prison cell; indeed, live we might have had more of a sense of her fear than a brief shot of her turning around (at a distance) and staring up some stairs on film.

Also the costumes are a strange mix of ancient and modern. If the idea here is to show that somehow, in the 21st Century, a royal family has gone "retro" and dressed in the finery of classical times, whereas the rest of us dress in modern style, this is a bit of an unclear decision. The mix just isn't very clear to this reviewer.

But overall this really is a consistently well acted, engagingly portrayed version of Antigone which holds itself up right until the end. There are electric moments, there's intensity, the narrative flows in a way that makes this a very accessible production. Highly recommended.

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