“Project Antigone”, presented by Atelier Theatre in New Delhi recently, stood out for its experimental format.

“Project Antigone”, presented by Atelier Theatre under the auspices of Punjabi Akademi Delhi at Shri Ram Centre recently, was remarkable for its experimental format by retaining the original content of the classic reflected in the irreconcilable conflict between the protagonist and antagonist. It is also an effort to lend the play a new artistic interpretation to be in tune with Indian aesthetics.

Inspired by Sophocles’ “Antigone” written in the 5th Century B.C., Jean Anouilh Antigone is a contemporary dramatic work which was first performed in Paris in 1944 in original French during the Nazi occupation. Though produced under Nazi censorship, it reflected resistance by the people against the Nazi occupation through the fierce conflict between Antigone and King Creon.

Based on Anouilh’s version, the play in Punjabi is directed by Kuljeet Singh with translation by Kulwant Kaur. Though the two different versions of “Antigone” by Sophophocles and another by Anouilh have been staged on the Delhi stage several times in the past, the treatment of Kuljeet is highly innovative. In both the Greek and French versions, there are more than half a dozen characters. In Kuljeet’s production, they are reduced to three — Antigone, Creon and Ismene who appears briefly towards the end. His entire focus is on the confrontation between Creon and, the King and Antigone, Creon’s niece and fiancée of Creon’s son, determined to defy the King’s orders.

Another new feature of Kuljeet’s production is the introduction of the character of artist with his canvas, brush and paint. As soon as the confrontation between Creon and Antigone starts, the artist begins to portray a figure and then paint it in black colour. The coloured face finally emerged that of a ruler with facial expression reflecting the psyche of a cruel ruler. Towards the end, the portrait assumes the shape of a terrifyingly distorted face, symbolising the ugly face of the oppressive power of the State apparatus. Nirab Jyotibora does the painting with his back towards the audience without masking the portrait.

Chorus is an important expressive means in Greek theatre, numbering about ten singes. Anouilh has reduced it to one member. Kuljeet has followed the same pattern. But he has used recitation of verses offstage to reinforce the central idea of the play — assertion of the rights of individual and his resistance against the State.

Kuljeet’s production opens with the direct confrontation between Antigone and Creon. Through their polemics charged with strong inner motives, the backdrop of the conflict is revealed. Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus. She has a sister, Ismene and brother, Polynices, who is killed in an encounter. The state ruled by Creon had declared him traitor, denying burial to the deceased, leaving the body exposed as a punishment for his treachery. A defiant Antigone tries to bury the body of her brother but caught and brought before King Creon. Creon is the brother of Oedipus and loves Antigone who is in love with Creon’s son Haemon and wants her to marry his son. Creon tries his best to persuade her to desist from defying the State which will inexorably lead her to death.

Creon tells her that her brother was the cause of trouble to her father. His dishonourable deeds brought disgrace to the family and are declared a traitor to the country. So he does not deserve any respect neither by the State nor by family. Creon tries to cover up her attempt to perform the rite of burial for his brother.

As the polemics assumes the form of intense conflict between the two diametrically opposite views expressed by Antigone and Creon, Antigone moves out of the stage and moves in the auditorium.

Another element of suspense is added with the brief appearance of Deepa Kumar as Ismene who addresses Antigone from the balcony. The whole auditorium vibrates with the resolve of Antigone to defy Creon and go ahead with her plan to bury her brother. Creon remains on the stage, forced to execute Antigone.

The lone chorus member Simranjeet Kaur sits on the stage in full view of the audience with a mere harmonium as an accompaniment, rendering poems by Hazrat Sultan Bahu ji Maharaj, a Sufi poet, highlighting the need for individual freedom, indicting the autocracy of the ruler to suppress the voice of dissent. The offstage rendition of poems by Avtar Pash, Rajesh Joshi, Jagtar and Faiz Ahmad Faiz which celebrate the struggle of individual against the unjust laws of the State. Through the use of verses by Indian poets, the director tries to give his production a flavour of Indian aesthetics.

Manisha Batra as Antigone gives brilliant performance, delivering her lines with conviction and inner force. Her tone resonates with irreverence and disdain for the unjust edict of Creon. Her Antigone is truly a tragic hero. Satnam Gill’s Creon as the sovereign is forced to execute Antigone. Both these two performers create tense atmosphere on the stage, offering dramatically tense movements.

There is a repeat show of the play at Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, on June 1.