Toronto playwright Jeff Ho adapts the Sophocles play for young audiences
Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre is ending its 2018-19 season with the world premiere of Antigone: 方, a contemporary adaptation of the Sophocles play by Jeff Ho, a Toronto-based playwright originally from Hong Kong. Recommended for audiences aged 12 to 18, you may be wondering how it’s possible to make an ancient Greek tragedy relevant to a contemporary, young audience. Ho approached the adaptation from a surprising angle and the results are brilliant.
Ho was inspired by the student-led, pro-democracy movements in China in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Both the Tiananmen Square Massacre which took place in Beijing in 1989 and Hong Kong’s “Occupy Central” Umbrella Movement protests of 2014 are heavily referenced throughout his adaptation. The characters and dramatic beats of Sophocles’ tragedy map surprisingly well onto the context of these modern protest movements.
Ho’s adaptation doesn’t exactly take place in China per se but in a nameless state with a “Supreme Leader” that’s a thinly veiled reference to it. Set and costume designer Christine Urquhart references the Chinese flag’s gold stars on a red backdrop in her red banners with golden “X”s draped around the auditorium and she costumes the actors in stylized versions of the iconic “Mao suits.”
Directors Stephen Colella and Karen Gilodo present the show in the round, with the audience surrounding a central stage on all sides, and make good use of the space, relying on stylized movement to convey the story’s action. The directors also make great use of umbrellas both as symbols to visually reference the Umbrella Movement and as props with umbrellas standing in for things like guns and dead bodies.
In Ho’s script, the characters vividly describe a harsh government clampdown on a protest in a public square that immediately brings to mind the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
Two brothers, Neikes (Jeff Yung) and Teo (Aldrin Bundoc) have died fighting on opposite sides of the conflict. Their father Kreon (John Ng), a high-ranking government official, has closed off the square, forbidding grieving families from retrieving the bodies of their loved ones which he insists will be bulldozed into a mass grave instead. His own daughter Antigone (Jasmine Chen) chooses to defy her father’s orders to retrieve the body of her brother from the square.
The scene in which Kreon confronts his daughters, Antigone and Ismene (Rachel Mutombo) and where Antigone chooses to defy her father’s wishes knowing she will be expelled from the family and eventually face death is the most compelling version of this scene I’ve seen in any production of Antigone. The stakes felt so much higher to me because of the added layer of the Chinese cultural belief in filial piety: for a Chinese child to defy their parents is considered absolutely unforgivable.
It was this moment where I thought, “Of course, putting contemporary Chinese characters into Greek mythology makes perfect sense.” I suspect anyone who has grown up in a traditional culture would feel the weight of that moment.
I did wonder though, if most of the references in the show would fly over the heads of the intended audience of 12 to 18 year-olds. I would venture to guess most of them haven’t read Sophocles’ play, weren’t alive during the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre and would even be too young to have a sense of the significance of the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests.
But I do know that this generation of youth is no stranger to standing up in defiance of the old guard to speak truth to power, from the survivors of the Parkland School shooting turning into advocates for sensible reforms to gun laws to Greta Thunberg leading a massive youth movement to fight climate change, the themes of the show will feel relevant to teens even if they don’t catch all of the background references.
Antigone: 方 is a brilliant adaptation of a classic play that feels current and relevant. This is about as far from museum theatre as you can get.
- Antigone: 方 (Recommended for Ages 12-18) is playing at the Young People’s Theatre (165 Front Street East) through May 16, 2019
- Check the performance calendar on YPT’s website for show dates and times
- Tickets range from $10.00 to $39.00
- Tickets are available by phone at 416.862.2222 x2, in-person at the Young People’s Theatre box office (165 Front Street East. Monday to Friday: 9AM to 5PM, Weekends: Hours can vary) or online at youngpeoplestheatre.ca
Photo of Members of the Antigone:方 ensemble by Cylla von Tiedemann.