The Actors of Dionysus Antigone

An interview with Tamsin Shasha, Artistic Director

Thursday, 24 November, 1994
Chelsea Centre Theatre
World's End Place
King's Road
London SW10

Reviewed by Sallie Goetsch
School of Theatre Studies
University of Warwick
Coventry CV4 7AL

The Chelsea Centre Theatre, with its commitment to 'fresh, new English versions of rarely performed European classics,' is an appropriate venue for Antigone--a play so often produced that it could use some refreshing. It is appropriate, also, for the Actors of Dionysus, who have their own commitment to classics, as Tamsin Shasha explains when she rushes in after a battle with the traffic on King's Road.

The Actors of Dionysus have been operating since 1993. David Stuttard, head of Classics at Queen Margaret's School, Escrick, York, had been translating Greek plays since his days at St. Andrews University. In October of 1992, while he was working on Hekabe, a production of Bacchae came to his school and he was visited by Hesiod's second form of eris: the desire to do the same thing, only better.

Tamsin Shasha auditioned for Hecuba in Feb '93, was cast in the chorus, and stayed to become an artistic director. 'David teaches full-time,' she said, 'and does this in his spare time; I do this full time.' The AOD are looking to hire a full-time administrator when they can afford one; at present they have no Arts Council funding and their operating budget depends on the schools which they visit on their tours. They plan to seek business sponsorship and are hoping to use the month-long run in Chelsea as a springboard for future undertakings if they can recoup their expenditures. They use simple lighting cues and enlist students at each venue to act as techs and stagehands.

The Actors of Dionysus have been well-received at schools around the UK, and the hands-on workshops they offer, often to 40 or 50 students at a time, have been very popular. 'It's very intimidating,' Tamsin said, 'because you have to drag it out of them, but when you get a response, it's like the sun coming up.' One classics teacher sent them a note saying 'thank you for your contribution to keeping Classics alive,' a tribute much appreciated by the dedicated company.

Several pre-performance talks accompany the Chelsea run. So far they have proved very popular. 'Jasper Griffin's talk sold right out,' Tamsin said; 'We're asking him to come again.' The lineup of lecturers includes Robert Parker, Richard Seaford, Pat Easterling, Gordon Cockburn, and Bernard Gredley as well as Professor Griffin. Equally notable classicists have contributed to Dionysus, the newsletter which Tamsin and David edit in their copious spare time. Volume 1 contains contributions by Sir Kenneth Dover and Alistair Elliot, and an excerpt from David Stuttard's translation of Euripides' Electra. The editors welcome material from their readers. (See Listings: Conferences and Resources.)

Tamsin left to dress as the familiar sounds of actors' vocal warm- ups began to drift out of the dressing room. I realized that I had forgotten to ask about AOD's approach to training actors and their rehearsal process. The cast list enclosed in the program revealed that except for David Stuttard, the Actors were trained and experienced actors. David's teaching job prevents him from joining the company on tour, but the absence of a director once a show has opened is hardly unusual.

Presently the house manager, who doubled as lightboard operator, opened the doors to the audience which had been collecting in the bar while I talked to Tamsin. Chelsea Centre is a small space, a black box with one bank of seats; if it accomodated as many as 100 people, I would be surprised. The house was reasonably full, though not packed.

The set was simple: a trestle-table with chairs upended on it. Three white candles were placed in a triangular formation at the front of the acting space. The lights dimmed, and after a brief interval of Greek- sounding music (Arvo Part's 'Fratres', appropriately enough) Antigone rushed onto the stage, dragging Ismene behind her, their long ivory tunics making them look like ghosts in the moonlight blue wash of the lighting.

Antigone is a tired play. Antigone's defiance of Creon has lent itself to endless, usually highly politicized, adaptations. A colleague of mine once said of Antigone that it carried so much weight that it was like a camel with a reverse hump. Despite my admiration for Tamsin and David's passionate commitment to what they were doing, I was expecting to be bored.

Boring it definitely was not. Sweet fair-haired Tamsin burned with pain and passion as Antigone, while Alice Kennedy's Ismene was not timid and insipid but rather desperately afraid for the sister whom she loved. Drawn together and thrust apart, they filled the prologue with tension and grief, real and human.

The believability of the characterization continued throughout the play. The chorus of three, old men the likes of which can be seen in kapheneia all over Greece, doddered in, greeted one another with handshakes and embraces, and settled themselves in the chairs which they removed from the tabletop. The parodos became a reflection over coffee, passed from one to another in a natural, conversational way. Stuttard's translation was clear and effective in performance, though not memorable enough to linger in the mind.

Creon arrived as for a board meeting, confident and condescending. The old men brought him a cushion and a small table-top lectern in which was contained a bronze statuette of a sphinx, an appropriate emblem of his kingship. The 'ship of state' speech fit beautifully in the context, and his accusations of corruption had the authentic ring of modern political mudslinging.

The chorus always had something to do. During the Guard's Scots- accented speech they kept their focus on him and the timid suggestion that the gods might have been responsible for the burial came as a natural response to the story. Each choral ode saw them occupied in a believable way: drinking ouzo, playing backgammon, cleaning a birdcage. The Dionysus ode was recited over an icon of a saint, with candles and incense.

There were some particularly beautiful moments in this fine production, as when Ismene, spurned by Antigone after Creon has arrested them both, stretched forth her hand to her sister with anguish on her expressive face. After an agonizing pause, Antigone slowly reached around to take Ismene's hand, and the two embraced fiercely. Their passion was a fine contrast to the cool confidence and decisive authority of Creon, which was progressively eroded by the events of the play. Haemon's unwilling rejection of his father had its own poignant power. Teiresias was played by the same actor who had portrayed the Guard so comically, and was not comical at all. He was draped in the crimson velvet and black head-dress of an Orthodox bishop, led by a hooded monk (Tamsin). The old men of the Chorus kissed his ring. He spoke calmly, staring straight ahead in his blindness; when he came to prophesy Haemon's death his voice was low, powerful, and terrible in its unhurried certainty.

Eurydice, like the Chorus, was a familiar figure from Greek life, the old woman in black from head to clunkily-shod foot. In the darkness backstage Alice Kennedy had applied extensive makeup to put deep shadowed rings under Eurydice's eyes. She entered shuffling, bearing a handful of poppies, dropped to earth when the messenger related his awful news. Her silent, abrupt departure was indeed a cause for alarm. The fallen flowers came to represent her when Creon returned with Haemon's body (carried by a monk- robed Joe Collins, who had had a quick change from Teiresias). He lifted and cradled them and eventually placed them on his son's chest.The finale of the play was a candlelit funeral for Haemon, without words, beautiful in the ritual solemnity of incense, sprinkled dust, and Taverner's 'The Last Sleep of the Virgin'.

The Actors of Dionysus will be touring Oedipus Tyrannos, another tired play, in February and March. I don't expect to be bored.

Sallie Goetsch
University of Warwick

Sallie Goetsch has invited David Stuttard to publish his OT translation as a supplemental issue of Didaskalia

For a review of a very different production of Antigone, click here.