Experiencing the tragedy of ‘Antigone’ through the eyes of Syrian women

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A handout picture released by Aperta Productions shows, Fadwa Sahly telling a story on stage during an eight-week drama workshop entitled "Antigone of Syria" that will end with an on-stage performance in Beirut on December 6, 2014.AFP/Aperta Productions / Tabitha Ross

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Last week, Al-Madina Theater in Hamra, Beirut hosted a performance by Aperta Productions called, “Antigone of Syria,” in which a cast of Syrian refugee women reinterpreted, re-adapted, and commented on the original Greek tragedy by Sophocles. The result is an amalgamation of play and social project that not only generates strong emotional responses from the audience, but also asks uncomfortable questions about our roles in viewing and interacting with calamity.

The original play by the military general and playwright Sophocles, written more than 2,400 years ago, was the final part of three Theban plays that expand on an old Theban legend.

The third story, “Antigone,” tells the tale of Antigone, daughter of the former King of Thebes Oedipus, and her defiance of the edict of the current King of Thebes, Creon. Antigone had two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, who each led opposing sides during the civil war and both perished in the fighting. It was decreed by Creon that Eteocles be buried will full honors, and Polyneices, the rebel, was to be unburied, his carcass left as prey for wild animals. Antigone decides to defy the decree and bury Polyneices, despite a lack of help from her sister Ismene, and great consequences that results from challenging a king. Like most Greek tragedies go, Antigone's heroism and Creon's stubbornness – even in the face of Thebian public and divine sanction – results in the death of many of the main characters, and misery for those who remain alive.

“Antigone” is a classic story, highly political for its musings on civil disobedience, human versus divine law, family loyalty clashing with loyalty to the state, courage against great odds, and its strong representation of an arguably feminist main protagonist.

From the onset, many of the themes found in “Antigone” complement much of the current calamity besetting Syria, and the idea of working with the text through the prism of Syrian refugee women was a strong decision by the director, Omar Abusaada, and playwright, Mohammed al-Attar.

For months, Abusaada, Attar, and Syrian actor Hala Omran conducted dramatic training and workshops for 24 Syrian and Palestinian refugee women of varying ages, who left Syria recently and currently reside in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra, Shatila, and Burj al-Barajneh. The culmination of this work was a three-day public performance from which all profits went to the actors.

The performance combines the women's personal stories, their views on the tale of Antigone and its characters, as well as a meta-commentary on the performance itself, and the use of a very minimalist stage where a massive screen projects video, text, and images in the background.

On one side of the stage, a narrator guides the audience, as she reads out her thoughts about the play, Antigone, and the other cast members’ feelings towards the text throughout the process of making the performance. At the center of the stage the rest of the cast sits in a row of chairs, dressed in black and red abayas. They mainly play the role of the Greek chorus, sprouting lines from the Greek tragedy in unison, each breaking the ranks to tell their own story in the form of a soliloquy, as the row of chairs are shifted around and manipulated across the stage in accordance with the style and tone of each personal tale.

The audience hears the tale of one woman and her search for her missing brother’s body, a journey that takes her to the different offices of the warring parties, such as the regime, the Free Syrian Army, and even Jabhat al-Nusra. Another, told by the eldest of the cast who lost two sons in the course of the year, paints Creon in a more positive light. Each personal story is juxtaposed with lines from the original Greek story, or more generally in the deconstruction of its characters and themes by the cast.

This performance was not merely a play, but also a social project and the latter was undoubtedly a success.

It is clear that the workshop and the performances were therapeutic and empowering for the actors who had never performed in front of an audience before, or in fact have never been involved in a theater production before. The fact that the actors were able to recount their harrowing tales – such as the deaths or disappearance of family members, destruction of their homes, being forced into exile as refugees, the (in)ability to bury the dead, among other adversities is undoubtedly a difficult, cathartic experience. The fact that it was an all-women cast is powerful for they were able to express themselves in the midst of war, exile, and poverty that deny agency and demand silence, especially from women.

The story of “Antigone” could have easily dominated the performance’s narrative, however the actors and directors were able to reshape the text's themes to make a final product that is their own. The text does not matter here, rather it is how the cast feels and thinks about the text and the fates of the characters – from admiration towards Antigone’s courage to the romanticizing of her ill-fated love with the son of Creon. More so, the emotions were apparent not only on the faces of the audience but on the cast members as well, which only furthers the raw emotional power underlying the entire performance. This is not acting, per se, but more of real-life testimonials presented and fashioned for a larger audience.

The play itself is captivating at moments, and the themes and simmering ideas, symmetries and parallels between the Syrian refugee women and the characters of the Greek tragedy are abundantly clear. However, the political dimension of the Syrian crisis was tackled indirectly, almost elusively, but probably intentionally in light of its sensitivities and divisive nature. Perhaps time limitations, the number of actors and their inexperience, and the difficulty of doing so much with few resources can excuse the performance’s inability to explore the themes prevalent within “Antigone” in more depth.

Additionally, given the fact that much of the performance was concerned with spotlighting and bringing to the fore the voices and sentiments of these women, the lack of depth can be placed aside for the sake of the social project.

The performance is entrenched in a particular style of Arab theater that is becoming very common these days, with its heavy infusion of meta-commentary, autobiographical experiences, and scrutiny of the medium, society, and the self, and in which fact and fiction bleed together. It is a highly subjective experience, and because of its subjectivity, it may not work for everyone.

Ultimately, the success of “Antigone of Syria” relies not only on the strength of the actors, which was there in spades, but also on the willingness of the audience to listen. For the majority of the audience, the performance resonated and the standing ovations at the end of the performance showed this to be evident. But the biggest obstacle for the performance is not what the sentiments were within the theater hall, but rather the larger apathy and hostility towards refugees in Lebanon. It is apathy that plays a role in pushing forward calamities, whether in Syria, Lebanon, or elsewhere, and ensures that these women, like millions of others, remain in tragic, vulnerable situations.

There is also a self-awareness, with a hint of Syrian sarcasm, of how limiting the project can be. Once the performance has ended, the cast, the crew, and the audience all go their separate ways, the war in Syria continues, and the actors return to their refugee camps. True, the experienced might have partly healed some of the actors’ wounds, but their prohibitive, real situation remains unchanged. It mirrors the common problem with NGOs, many of whom go to refugee camps to carry out temporary work and eventual leave, not really altering the dynamics on the ground for the better.

Despite this, “Antigone of Syria” is an achievement on its own right, deserving more public performances, and hopefully can encourage other similar performances in the future, not only for the sake of the actors involved, but also for the audience.

Yazan is a senior writer for Al-Akhbar English. Follow him on Twitter: @WhySadeye

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