Adaptation can be a tricky thing indeed. But when it comes to re-working an ancient play – a play first written several centuries ago – and then making it work within a contemporary setting… well, the task at hand can be particularly difficult. And yet, theatre is hardly at a loss for modern adaptations of classic plays. Indeed, playwrights and directors are continually seeking new ways for re-interpreting old plays whilst striving to retain the essence of what makes them ‘classic’ in the first place. Pilot Theatre’s latest production, Antigone, co-created with playwright Roy Williams, is the latest adaptation to re-imagine the world of ancient Greece for our post-Millennial age. As Tom Bellerby, Associate Director of Pilot Theatre and Co-Director of Antigone explains to me, it’s all to do with locating the contemporary relevance within the play itself: “All the ancient Greek plays and works of Shakespeare share one thing in common: they tackle the heart of a subject. And it’s a subject that will forever exist and remain ripe for discussion and deconstructing. With Antigone, it is the idea of a young person standing up for what they believe in”.
With Antigone, Sophocles tells the story of the titular protagonist, Antigone, who upon learning of her brother Polyneices’s death, chooses to defy the rule of law and arrange for the burial of her slain brother. The tyrannical ruler Creon declares Polyneices’s burial against the law and brands Antigone’s deceased brother a ‘traitor’. Yet despite her uncle’s command, Antigone lays her slain brother to rest, only for Creon to vow retribution on his defiant niece. It’s a story in which cruelty and oppression clash with moral ideals and sacred traditions. As Williams explains, it was the moral force of Sophocles’s story, and its portrayal of human courage, that proved inspiring to him as a writer: “It’s a David and Goliath story about one person standing up against an institution, the state or the law. It’s a very simple story but it asks so much of all of us: if we see injustice – even though everyone is telling you not to rock the boat – do we have the courage to rock the boat?”
This latest production of Antigone marks the third time Williams and Pilot Theatre have collaborated together. In 2012, Williams worked with the company on the contemporary adaption of Anne Sillitoe’s 1952 short story (later adapted for cinema in 1962), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. But for their latest production, the challenges of bringing this ancient world into modern focus proved even more challenging, as Bellerby explains: “One of the main challenge in terms of directing the play was centred around the existence of ‘the Gods’ – who were such an important part of these Ancient Greek plays – and trying to find ways of making that fit into a contemporary world”. Yet, as Williams goes on to remark, the contemporary resonances have not detracted from the mythical and philosophical dimension of the play: “We decided to place it in a modern setting. Not specifically a place now, but in a modern day environment. As far as these characters are concerned – in their own little universe – it is Thebes, it is Ancient Greece.”
Because both Pilot and Williams’s work is borne out of collaborating with young people, their adaptation of Antigone works by breathing a sense of shared context into Sophocles’s ancient text. Speaking of Williams’s, process, Bellerby outlines the way in which the process of re-imagining the play arose from the playwright’s first-hand experience of working with younger audiences: “Roy has returned to the an area he has written about before – gang culture. A lot of what happens in Antigone rings true to that culture: the idea of leaders trying to assert themselves, the relationship between power and, importantly, the position of women within those cultures. Women are often treated as the lowest of the low within criminal communities but the protagonist in Antigone takes a stand against that.”
But what about the Gods? Surely their existence within a modern setting creates a bit of a problem for such a contemporary world? Well, when it comes to the presence of these omniscient spectators, Williams and Pilot have found a neat method for re-defining their presence for today’s audience: “One of the ways we’re exploring the Gods is through the use of cameras placed on-stage”, Bellerby tells me. “They’re live feeding into the projection. The Gods are literally always watching.” As Williams goes on to elaborate, the decision to re-configure the Gods as a contemporary surveillance system is meant to bring with it certain political connotations for these characters and the word they inhabit: “You only have to look at any street or city centre, and you will see that they’re full of CCTV cameras. It does feel at times as if we’re living under a Big Brother-like regime. A light bulb went off in my head and I realised that these could be the Gods in this interpretation of the play. They’re us and they’re the audience. They’re watching as the characters scrub about and try to make something of their lives.”
For Williams and Pilot Theatre, the education and engagement dimension to their work underpins everything they do as collaborative team. It’s clear from our conversation that they do not see the educational aspect as merely an optional add-on. Instead, it represents an intrinsic part of the creative process itself – ranging from bespoke workshops for schools to blogs charting the rehearsal room progress. They are truly a company without barriers when it comes to stepping beyond the stage to engage with audiences and young people alike: “It’s always been important for me. It’s how I started out. I come from a background of theatre-in-education and working to build young peoples skillsets”, Williams explain. “So as well as making something we were also running educational programs. It’s something I really support”. Bellerby is equally passionate about the role of education for Pilot Theatre’s practice: “Sometimes the education side of projects is treated as a completely separate, outsourced thing. But I also run the education side of stuff on the tour; so you’re not getting someone whose incredibly distant running that side of the process. It makes a huge difference.”
Antigone is currently at Derby Theatre, before embarking on a national tour. For more information visit Pilot Theatre’s website.