On the Sunday rehearsal before our first performance on Wednesday, I was feeling increasingly helpless and frustrated about my acting, not sure what to do or where to go. My director was telling me not to relish the emotion too much. In my Antigone Antagone blog, I described how I’d hit a brick wall with my last ‘swan song’ speeches. I was still at a loss about how to perform them as nothing I did seemed to please my director. I thought I understood what my director felt was wrong but I couldn’t work out what to do to change. I was running out of time. I needed a path to follow; a way forward. I even started praying about it and asking God to help me. How could I do justice to this great role?
Then I realised. That was the problem. Doing ‘the legendary Antigone’ was the problem. All that expectation. The ‘big’ Greek Tragedy. This famous heroine who everyone had an opinion on. All those famous actresses who’d ever played her. This was stifling me as an actress.
I had to side step all of this. It was silly to think that I could ever live up to the famous actresses who’d played her before me. I wasn’t meant to. Those were their performances. This was mine.
Then it dawned on me.
The words, the text.
This is what I usually do, have always done: the text. I’m nothing if not a woman of words; of language; of the meaning they convey. I’m an English teacher for goodness sake. Words, words, words: that’s what I do. That’s how I feel. That’s how I connect. That’s how I communicate. Words are part of my soul.
Back to basics. The Text.
Back to what I feel at home with. The Text.
Back to the techniques I use when performing Shakespeare. The Text.
Then I realised that I had been bringing things to the text: overlaying the text, putting emotion onto the text rather than letting the text release the meaning and emotion. My creativity had become trapped, stuck and hardened. I was relying on cliched acting. The words had lost their life and their meaning.
“Active communication is your first priority,” Ali de Souza, our teacher at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, would say and “Don’t strive for feeling, strive for action.”
I’d been putting emotion before communication; striving for feeling instead of action and in so doing had got all locked up.
Words create. Words communicate.
“In the beginning was the WORD, and the WORD was with God, and the WORD was God.”
John 1v1, New Testament
These marks and squiggles on the page: they’re not only symbols for sounds, they are shapes that carry the human soul; that change the human soul. Words create pain or joy; love or hate; hope or disappointment. They clarify or confuse, praise or insult.
Suddenly I felt something black and heavy fall off my back; as if a rigid carapace or shell had cracked off me and crashed to the floor. My body literally felt looser and lighter. I felt fluid.
After that, everything began to flow … and fast.
I already knew the text inside and out, so it only took moments to focus on what the words were actually telling me; to communicate the words and let their rich meanings do the work. I had spent weeks doing exercised on the text and now all that preparation slotted into place.
As I connected to the text and as I spoke the words, Antigone’s objectives simplified and became specific. The situations clarified. “Play the situation and get the character for free,” Ali would say. This is what seemed to be happening. The freedom that I’d only guessed at in this young woman began to inspire me and fill me.
As I continued to rise up and throw off the heaviness, I felt Antigone rising up within me.
I could see her rising from the oppression of Creon’s rule:
Rising from the men’s oppression of women;
Rising from the oppression of the pain of her brother’s unburied body;
Rising from the oppression of her family’s incestuous past.
I saw her throw off the bonds; reach out for freedom and shoot to the sky.
Antigone: a shooting star for all to see: for the people of Thebes, for the Athenian audience in Athens, for us all.
At our dress rehearsal the next day, Antigone’s urgency, pain, the frustration flowed free as I explained and argued with Ismene. A powerful connection grew between Ismene and me: passionate sisterhood; sharing, persuading, arguing and fighting.
At the end of the scene, I sat down and heaved a sigh of relief. Felt great but had it worked? Our Director beamed me huge smile and made a triumphant ‘You’ve done it! ‘ sign. Later he and our stage manager spoke of “clarity, communication, shades of meaning and mood, intensity and power” coming from my ‘new’ Antigone.
That last problematic ‘big scene’ opened up. Where I’d previously decided I’d seen loss and grief, this time, I let the words speak. I found fear of death. Then: hope in an afterlife with my parents and Polynices.
I found Antigone-in-me.
I loved the people of Thebes, my people; saying a last farewell, inspiring them to a better future.
There are things which are so important; so fundamental; so eternal that they are worth dying for.
“You are half way through Antigone, so enjoy the rest of the run. You are brilliant”
Kendal Community Theatre Actor
During Thursday’s performance, unexpected nuances of meaning in Sophocles’ words (in translation) revealed themselves; new inflections and different emphases flowed from the words. A new warmth and nobility was growing within me. None of it was planned. It just happened as I communicated the words. For the last two performances, she took on a life of her own.
On Friday night, I became Antigone. I felt like Antigone. It was as if she was motivating me, moving me, speaking through me. My director was thrilled. Antigone-in-me was bursting upon Ismene, upon Creon, upon the citizens of Thebes like a brightly burning star.
Of course, it’s difficult to tell whether the audience felt the same. I can only explain it from my point of view but I was gratified by my director’s praise. (Below are a few comments I received on my performance.) If my director hadn’t pushed me, hadn’t kept on pressing me to go beyond my comfort zone, I may never have found Antigone.
“Julie. Terrific week – a privilege to watch. Your performance evolved and so was different (and the same) every night. Huge range of raw fury and great subtlety. Your relationships on stage became disturbingly deep and real. A triumph.”
KCT Director of Antigone
“Brilliant lady, Julie as Antigone is so compelling. Well done all, as powerful a piece of theatre as I have seen!” KCT Treasurer
“Emotive and Powerful stuff! Even though I’ve got the script I know what’s coming …… it’s still enthralling. Your portrayal of Antigone is wonderful!” Antigone Drummer