Queensland Theatre closes its 2019 season with a stirring adaptation by Merlynn Tong after Sophocles of the quintessential Greek tragedy Antigone, charting the final fall of thedoomed children of Oedipus.

First written in 441 BC as the final piece of Sophocles’ trilogy of Theban plays, Antigone centres on the titular character, a young woman seeking to honour the death of both her brothers. Formerly the joint rulers of Thebes, Eteocles and Polynices died on each other’s swords in a recently ended war over rulership of the city. Despite a new law forbidding the burial of Polynices, who has been deemed a traitor by newly-coronated king Creon, Antigone chooses defiance and is condemned by Creon for retrieving her brother from the carrion pile, triggering a chain of tragic events that will threaten to destroy the city. The play centres on the raging arguments between Antigone and Creon, as well as Creon and his son, Antigone’s betrothed Haemon, about ideas of family, duty, and morality, as well as the nature of wisdom, justice, and leadership.

Christen O’Leary and Jessica Tovey. Photograph © Dylan Evans

Merlynn Tong’s adaptation is skilfully crafted in modern, poetic language and peppered with moments of unexpected humour that diffuse the palpable tension pervading the rest of the piece. This production of Antigone is a tightly packed 70 minutes with a pared back cast list, exploring all the dualities and complexities of the original play: individual against the state; youth against age and experience; family duty against civic duty; divine law against the laws made by man. Tong’s adaptation recasts Creon not merely as a ruthless tyrant, but as the first woman to rule Thebes; a woman and a mother, struggling with the pressures of leadership and as afraid of her own vulnerability as she is of the strength of her enemies. Despite this interesting new dimension, the addition of modern rhetoric such as ‘extremism’ and ‘act of terror’ felt unnatural against the lyrical, classical language employed in the rest of the work and the links suggested between Sophocles’ text and current political debates were tenuous at best.

Jessica Tovey played an earnest and impassioned Antigone, unabashedly emotional, and Christen O’Leary was magnificent in the role of Creon, displaying characteristic dynamism and impressive versatility as the character moved from private uncertainty to public conviction, from anguished mother to immovable monarch, and back again. The battle of wits and wills between Antigone and Creon which lies at the heart of the play was riveting in their capable hands, the condescension of age pitted against the conviction of youth. O’Leary’s first moments onstage, looking down upon the audience and delivering a rousing speech to the people of war-ravaged Thebes, were a highlight and set the scene beautifully for the remainder of the play. The role of a Greek chorus was replaced in this adaptation by interludes of opera performed by Shubshri Kandiah, who also played Antigone’s anxious and law-abiding sister Ismene. Kevin Spink brought a grounded, quiet intensity to the role of Haemon, and Penny Everingham was a perfectly sage onstage presence as Tiresias, especially juxtaposed against the savage energy of O’Leary’s Creon.

Christen O’Leary and Kevin Spink. Photograph © Dylan Evans

Vilma Mattila’s design clearly established mood and hierarchy from the outset and was full of surprises, and understated costuming with consultancy by Nathalie Ryner tied in seamlessly with the other design elements. Lighting design by Ben Hughes made heavy use of spotlights, and total blackouts were incorporated into the performance to great effect. Tony Brumpton created both the composition for Ismene’s haunting songs, with vocal consultancy by Megan Shorey, and the subtle, ominous sound design for the production.

Queensland Theatre’s Antigone is an adaptation that remains true to the core questions asked of audiences 2,500 years ago. However, it does not deliver on its promise to reflect the current political climate, except to reflect politics and human rights as they have existed since Sophocles wrote his tragedy – endless, universal, and ultimately irresolvable debates concerning morality, duty, and ideas of justice being separate from the law. The choice to reinvent Creon as a woman will add a new facet for those who have experienced this work before, and the exceptional performances of the two leading actors make this production memorable.

Antigone runs at the Bille Brown Theatre, Brisbane until November 16