Sophocles’ “Antigone” considers the cost of war at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory. Director Greg Leaming offers his insights on the bloody price tag.
“War is over if you want it.” John Lennon said it, but it’s not that easy. Our ornery species has been fighting since the dawn of time. Back in 441 B.C., Sophocles’ “Antigone” confronted the cost of carnage. The FSU/Asolo Conservatory’s next production transposes the tragedy to the 21st century. A cast of second-year acting students will bring Seamus Heaney’s lyrical adaptation to life. But “lyrical” doesn’t mean pretty. The city of Thebes is now celebrating a victory in the Middle East. New battlefields; same old ugliness. The civil war might be over. but the military madness is still taking lives. Director Greg Leaming shares his thoughts on Sophocles’ tragedy and why it’s as sadly relevant as ever.
What’s the heart of “Antigone”?
The real heart is the collision between individual conscience and the rule of law. Every civilization faces that conflict — and Sophocles makes it personal. That’s the reason his play is still relevant after 2,500 years.
What’s the conflict of conscience in this play?
Antigone’s facing a horrible situation. Her brother, Polyneices, died on the wrong side of a civil war. She wants to give him a decent burial, but he’s been marked as a traitor, and a new law makes burying a traitor a capital offense. If Antigone performs her family duty, she has to break the law. If King Creon upholds the law, he has to put Antigone to death. How should a culture respond? How should an individual respond? There are no easy answers.
It reminds me of the trolley problem. Do nothing, and the trolley kills five innocent bystanders. Pull the switch, and only the conductor dies.
It’s very much like that.
Just out of curiosity, why were Athenians theatergoers hooked on no-win thought experiments?
It wasn’t a choice, actually. Athenian citizens were required to attend plays like this — and the hard questions were really the point! It was a means of building a better democracy. Sitting in the audience, you were forced to consider tough issues. Instead of abstract philosophy, you’d witness what happens when an issue gets boiled down into the problems of three very specific people.
So there’s a political intent behind it all?
Yes, but there’s no finger-wagging. Sophocles isn’t saying: “Do this. Don’t do that.” It’s about being emotionally engaged with his characters. That’s why you’re so moved by the consequences they face. You want them to succeed and know that they can’t.
It’s a tragedy. Expect no happy ending.
Right. As director, the real challenge is making the audience think: "Oh, God. Maybe this time it’ll turn out differently.” An old friend of mine once said he’d never see “La Bohème” again unless I promised him Mimi wouldn’t die. In a funny way, that’s the secret of directing tragedies. You might know the ending, but while you’re experiencing the play, I want you to think that anything could happen.
Does a Greek chorus strike you as artificial?
No, I love working with a Greek choruses. They function as a stand-in for the audience and the greater community. That’s vital in “Antigone,” which is all about how democracy works and the tension between individual and state. The chorus charts the play’s emotional movement — and they’re focused on the man in power. King Creon’s wrestling with tough decisions. The chorus offers advice, support, opinions. They’re here to help.
No. That’s a common misconception, and that’s been a big lesson for the students in rehearsals. A Greek chorus isn’t a hive mind delivering a homogenized political message. It’s a group of individuals, each with their own viewpoint. So if you’re acting in the chorus, you have to make it personal. The issue could be, “What does it mean to obey a bad law?” You have to ask: “What does that mean to me?” Each actor has to find their own perspective, and that informs their delivery. The chorus doesn’t always agree. As a director, you have to allow for that tension. Many people also assume that Greek tragedy means yelling a monolithic point of view. It doesn’t. There’s nuance, and it should unfold with the chaos of life. The actor can’t think, “OK. The second Antigone walks in, I’ll start screaming.” That’s not the way it works. Emotion flows from personal connection. Creating that connection is very demanding. You have to pay strict attention to your fellow actors.
How have rehearsals been going with the second-year student cast?
It’s really been a journey — and I don’t mean a walk in the park. This is a gut-wrenching play, and the students have to get into it on a gut level. They all really have. Naire Poole is amazing as Antigone, and Christopher Hayhurst has been outstanding as Creon. But with Sophocles, there are really no minor characters. Every actor, and all seven members of the chorus — they each have their own voice, and they’re all essential to the journey.
Are Sophocles’ characters pawns of fate? Or the victims of bad decisions?
Yes, no, and all of the above. To really answer that, … you really have to put “Antigone” in the context of war. At the start of the play, Thebes is celebrating a recent victory in war. That war led to certain laws — including the law against burying traitors, which sets the calamity in motion. Antigone is courageous; she’s determined to do her duty, whatever the cost. But King Creon is also doing his duty. He’s a flawed human being, like everyone in power. He has trouble listening to women — and can’t benefit from their moral perspective until it’s too late. So, Creon makes bad decisions. But he’s not the bad guy, and his ethical dilemma is really the main focus. The chorus is really speaking to him throughout the play. Creon’s their leader, and they support him. The chorus never deviates from that. But they start to question their blind, militaristic obedience.
Would you call this an anti-war play?
Absolutely, especially in Seamus Heaney’s excellent, poetic translation. But it’s not just anti-war. He’s really focused on the war machine. Not the war itself, but the collateral damage. The blind decisions, the stupidity, the ruined lives. The war may be over, but the damage never ends.
Article has been updated to reflect the correct cast and ticket price.