We suffer at the behest of our saviours: Khalid Ahmad talks about staging Antigone in Karachi

Ahmad’s take on the Greek play aims to raise the bar and a few questions about authoritarianism

Asfa Sultan September 16, 2022

French philosopher Paul-Michel Foucault challenged the notion that power is wielded by groups through “sovereign” acts of domination and coercion. Suggesting, instead, that it can neither be an agency nor structure, Foucault opined that “power is everywhere” and “comes from everywhere,” constituted through a “regime of truth.” And since there are types of discourse that society may accept and allow to function as true, “truth,” is a thing of the world, with each society upholding its own “politics of truth.”

Antigone, although a Greek tragedy written millenniums ago by Sophocles in 441 BC, evokes similar questions about power dynamics. By pitting the power of the state against the power of the individual, the play, whenever performed, is known to have touched upon the dilemma of “your truth and mine.” As per Khalid Ahmad, who has directed the Jean Anouilh version of the play currently being performed at the National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa), Antigone is as much about today as it was about Athens in 441 or France in 1944 under Nazi occupation.

“It is about the exigencies of state power and the right of the individual. The play says that the individual’s right is sacrosanct and no statehood can trample over it,” Ahmad shares with The Express Tribune amidst a demanding dress rehearsal. He stares fiercely into Maha Hasan’s eyes – who plays Antigone – in his costume, which resembles that of Nazi officers’ uniforms. “The play has taken such a form that it can be staged anywhere at any time. Keeping in line with that, our costumes are mixed. While the king's dress resembles that of Nazi officers’, you will see his royal guards dressed in the grey cloth worn by guards around us.”

Ahmad, who takes on the role of King Creon in the play, translated it into Urdu before setting out to direct it. Touching upon the conflict of the political thriller, he narrated for the unversed, “After King Oedipus's death, his sons Eteocles and Polynices engage in war, and while the latter side triumphs, both brothers die. Their maternal uncle, Creon, who had sided with Eteocles, becomes king.”

Retelling how Antigone – sister of the deceased brothers – comes into the picture after Eteocles is granted a state funeral while Polynices is denied a religious burial, Ahmad talks about the exigencies at play and their consequences. “Not only does Creon deny Polynices a religious burial, but he also ordains that anyone who tries to bury him will die too, arguing that it is ‘necessary to maintain discipline.’ But Antigone, who simply wants to bury her brother, does not care about politics and argues that it is her individual right. That is what sets the tone of the play.”

A scene from Antigone sees her tell Creon that the right of the dead to have a burial is “a matter of gods, not man.” And Anouilh, best known for his adaptation of Sophocles' classic, was known to explore themes of maintaining integrity in a world of moral compromise.

“In 1944, when France was under German occupation, Jean Anouilh rewrote the Sophocles play under Nazi censorship,” shared Ahmad, revising how it was purposefully maneuvered with regard to the rejection of authority (represented by Antigone) and the acceptance of it (represented by Creon). “Anouilh couldn't criticise the Nazis openly so he used symbolism. He also rid Antigone of its religious and mythological connotations, making it into a modern play by inculcating modern references like coffee and jam. The audience got confused but Anouilh did this on purpose to make them believe that the play could be about today too.”

Historians such as Robert Cohen acknowledge that today's theatre practices – including production and style – are descendants of originals that were, in ways, superior. Nola Smith notes that contemporary theatre may be best for the present but the idea that it is somehow superior, is ludicrous. And thus, while one can argue that it is convenient to take from the past, it is also imperative to connect to the present.

Ahmad, therefore, adds, “The powerful elite of today deny the rights of the individual and that tension has always existed, it just takes different forms in different societies. Antigone touches upon the saviour syndrome, for instance, by introducing characters who are convinced they’re the only ones who can save the state. It is reminiscent of the numerous people we know, who firmly believe they are the only ones who can save us. But because of their decisions, we suffer, the individual suffers.”

The actor, however, encouraged everyone who comes to watch the play, to feel free to “draw their own conclusions.” He also explained how the play would encourage the same. “The chorus at the beginning will tell you everything, the whole story. So, the question is not what's going to happen, but rather, how it's going to happen. That itself creates so much riveting tension.”

He added, “And once you watch the play, you will realise that it becomes an analogy. Is the right of the individual so sacrosanct that it should trump the welfare of the state? If not, should it still be respected? The arguments of the king are also very strong, so strong, that a part of the audience may side with him. That is why this play was allowed to be performed during the Nazi era too. Because the king had his reasons, his arguments. Interestingly, the audience can't hate anyone towards the end either. It will only feel sorry for everyone.”

Antigone will be presented at Napa’s Zia Mohyeddin Theatre from September 16 to September 21. Tickets for the play are priced at PKR 1000, with a 50% discount for students.

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