October 10, 2008

I Hate Treating Audiences As Though They Are Stupid

By Grania McFadden

It certainly has resonances for modern Ulster, but local playwright Owen McCafferty's new production is a reworking of an ancient, Greek classic. He tells Grania McFadden why he was very determined to resurrect it for this year's Belfast Festival at Queen's

The war is over. But the conflict continues over how to honour the dead. Should we turn our backs on the troubled past, or should the future wait while we remember the fallen?

It's a question which has often been asked here in Northern Ireland, and one which Belfast playwright Owen McCafferty will be raising again in his new production, an adaptation of Greek tragedy Antigone.

Sophocles' classic drama explores the ageless issues of power, democracy and the rights of man - his play has been adapted for the modern stage by many writers, including our own Seamus Heaney.

Now McCafferty will direct Prime Cut in the world premiere of his new version in what promises to be the dramatic highlight of the Ulster Bank Festival at Queen's.

The company has assembled a first rate cast - headed by Sir Ian McElhinney and veteran actor Harry Towb - to retell the story of Antigone, whose brother Polyneices lies slain on the battlefield. His burial has been outlawed by King Creon. Sophocles posed this question to his audience - should Antigone obey the king, or should she follow her conscience and give her brother an honourable burial?

McCafferty first began working on his version three or four years ago and was bowled over by the play's timelessness.

"It's very, very well written, and of course it has a resonance for here, now. But there's more to it than that."

He is infuriated at the idea that he might have 'transposed' the story to Northern Ireland, where the past is inextricably linked to the present, and where the manner in which we consider our former enemies - and our dead - is still a hot topic.

"What is it about people here that we need to think that everything is about us? It's not about us. Our situation has resonance with this play - but so do lots of other situations.

"I wouldn't want people to go and see this play just because it reminds them of here," he said. "I want them to see it because it's an exceptionally good play performed by highly talented actors. We sell ourselves short with the notion that we should see something because it is relevant to us."

Although the parallels between Antigone's dilemma and the situation here are inescapable, McCafferty is adamant that the themes are universal.

"Setting it in Northern Ireland would have been too easy. Why would I want to do that?

"I hate treating audiences as though they are stupid and putting everything into their laps. Anyway, transposing plays never works for me. It's like trying to force a square peg into a round hole."

McCafferty has always had immense respect for theatre audiences. "They are adults. They don't need everything laid out for them. The issue is simple. Sophocles is asking this: after conflict, is it important to consider your enemies? Should you afford them dignity?"

He says he has always tackled important themes in his work. "I like to think I ask the big questions using smaller issues. Here, I get to ask the big questions."

Antigone addresses issues like the rights of the individual versus the state, past versus present, and others such as loyalty, conscience and the importance of obeying the law.

But McCafferty almost turned down the offer to write his version of the classic. "I always have a problem when I'm asked to re-write things. I ask, 'Why don't you do the original'? And until I can answer that, I won't touch it."

So what's he bringing to the stage that Sophocles left out?

"Well, I have tried to make it feel more like a modern play. It's still set in Greece, but the language is different. I've tried to make it more personal. Sophocles didn't deal with character terribly well - he was more concerned with the debate. So I have tried to make it more personal."

McCafferty has also shifted some of the emphasis to Creon, King of Thebes. "Rather than see him as the bad guy, which is how Sophocles depicted him, I've tried to view him as pragmatic. There are two sides to every story, after all.

"I'm still asking the same questions, but I hope my play will be a hybrid of classical and contemporary."

McCafferty has surrounded himself with some of our finest acting talent. One of the youngest members of the cast is his own son Eoin - "Get them out working young, that's what I say!" - while the oldest is Harry Towb, now in his eighties.

"It's such a privilege working with Harry - he puts us all to shame. He's fantastic. As is Ian McElhinney, of course."

McCafferty enjoys directing enormously. "It's something I don't do often enough. I spend too much time locked away on my own writing instead of working with actors."

And he is thrilled to be working with Prime Cut again. The company staged the Irish premiere of his award-winning play Scenes from the Big Picture at last year's festival.

"Antigone, like Scenes, has a big cast - 14 actors. It's great working on something as epic as this, dealing with big, epic issues.

"You don't often get the chance to do that with modern plays. They're usually small stories tackling small issues. Antigone is a big epic and it is a more theatrical event than many modern plays."

McCafferty loves the idea of staging something that is obviously unreal. "Let's forget realism for a while. The actors know they're pretending and the audience knows it's not real. That appeals to me greatly - the opportunity to concentrate on what's being said.

"I think we're good at grasping that concept here - we're a storytelling nation and we hook into that more quickly.

"It saddens me that these days, we can't tell stories unless we explain every action. Nothing can happen without us learning the backstory - he did it because ... she acted that way because ...

"Why can't we just show the action and let the audience make decisions about the characters' morality?"

This lack of judgment is what makes the great classical tragedies appeal to McCafferty.

"Antigone is one of the few plays in which everyone is telling the truth.

"There's no ulterior motive and no deceit - just debate. Today, all play-writing is based on deceit - keeping information from the characters or the audience. Here, it's all out there, all the time."

Prime Cut is billing this festival production as a classic tragedy that speaks our language. And like its creator, it won't be mincing its words.

Antigone opens at the Waterfront Studio as part of the Ulster Bank Festival at Queen's on October 23, and runs until November 1. For tickets or information see www.belfastfestival.com

(c) 2008 Belfast Telegraph. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.