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Q&A: Antigone

posted on 2 October 2014

Roy Williams (Playwright)

Why Antigone?
It has always been one of my favourite Greek plays. It was one of those plays that I always knew how I would do it, if I ever got my hands on it. I just felt I knew where I would place it and how I would make it relevant. In the same way that I knew The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner had something to say because it was about more than what it might first seem, I think Antigone has a lot to say about today. It’s called Antigone, but I think it is just as much the story of Creon and about -power and identity and about about how power can corrupt.

Given those themes, it seems very relevant to today?
If you watch the news and you see constantly the stories about what’s happening in the Middle East and in Ukraine, you realise the story of power and corruption is still totally relevant – but then it always is. There is another element for me though. The story also has a lot to say about contemporary gang culture, which is something I have written about before. It’s a subject I want to write about, but I want to find original ways of doing that. When I have met young people while researching for plays about gang culture, I’ve been really surprised to hear them talking about themselves in military terms. They refer to themselves as soldiers and talk about gang culture like it is war. That whole notion of gang members seeing themselves as soldiers in a war is something that can be really well explored with the story of Antigone.

How do you react to that?
I absolutely despise the whole notion. When young people feel it is acceptable to live their lives that way it offends me. It offends me that they feel like they must live like that.

You say Antigone is your favourite Greek play. Why is that?
It’s dramatic, it’s brilliantly structured, it just speaks to me. There is something about the defiance of Antigone that I find fascinating. When she tries to bury her brother constantly, in defiance of Creon, it is an incredibly dramatic facet of the story.

So how do you practically go about adapting it?
I let the original text do the work for me. It is my original take on the story, it begins and ends in the same way, all the beats of the story are the same as the original and the characters remain, but it is my take with the characters in the world that I have moved them into.

You’ve worked with Pilot on several occasions before, how did this play come about?
I’ve actually known (director) Marcus Romer for a long time – we came across each other in the eighties when we were both working in Theatre in Education. I mentioned to him, after The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, that I wouldn’t mind having a crack at Antigone. It’s one of those ideas that I’ve had floating around for a really long time now and I knew exactly how I wanted to do it. Marcus said ‘let’s go for it’. It’s one of those special relationships that you have sometimes where there is a lot of faith and a lot of trust, so when he says something like that, you know you can go for it. I also really like the work that Pilot makes. It’s the sort of thing that is right up my street. I really like the way that Pilot and Marcus react and respond to creativity.

Pilot makes work for young people, is there any sense of a ghetto in that sort of work?
I’m not sure that people turn their noses up at it, but I think it is easy to take that sort of work for granted. It can be dismissed as work that isn’t important as work on the big stages like the RSC and the National. The irony is that I have written work for both those stages and I never think that I will do anything but my best work whatever the audience is. Writing for those young audiences is where I started and I would never short-change them by doing anything but my best work for them.

Why is that important to you, to make sure there is no slip in standards when you are writing for a younger audience?
They deserve to have good theatre just as much as an adult audience. Why would they deserve anything other than that? Theatre is a way for young people to see themselves and their lives through drama. I think that’s really important and I see it as a responsibility to get young people through the doors of a theatre and to realise that their lives are important to be represented on stage. It’s not about finding an audience for tomorrow – even though the work we make is appealing to people who will be making theatre themselves in 20 years’ time – it’s about giving the audience of young people today work that they can relate to and enjoy.

Is there a big difference between writing your own original work and adapting from something that already exists?
It’s much harder to adapt something! Like I said, the idea has been in the back of my mind for a long time and I just finally decided it had been in the back of my mind for long enough – it was time to put pen to paper. I got the original translation and started working through it. I did about five or six drafts before I had something that I was ready to show to Marcus. Once I’d done that, I then went back and read the version by Sophocles and others after him. The difficulty with an adaptation like this is that you have to find a way to make it your own; you have to make the script original while being very careful not to disrespect the original. You also have to have a real passion for it and you have to have a reason to want to tell the story, you have to be able to answer the question ‘what’s the point’?

Marcus Romer (Director)

This is the third time you and Pilot have worked with Roy Williams, why does he keep coming back?
We should give our audiences the best that we can get and that means getting the best writers, like Roy, to work with our company. I’ve known Roy’s work for a long time and it has always been about engaging audiences who might be outside the mainstream, the kind of audiences that you don’t always see on the mainstages of a lot of theatres. Any audience wants to see itself reflected on the stages, that how you tell relevant stories and that is how you get an audience in.

This is a predominantly black cast, which is not the norm for a play like this. Why have you made that decision?
It’s something that’s in the air at the minute, something that people are talking about, the fact that we need to start reflecting wider society on our stages – Pilot has been doing it for decades. When we take work around the country, and we are touring this nationally, then that’s what the audience looks like – incredibly multi-cultural. It’s rocket salad again – show those audiences on stage, reflect their reality and people will want to come and see your work. It’s not even about finding the audiences or anything like that, necessarily, it’s just that this is what we do, it’s the work I want to make – this is what England looks like and it simply makes sense to me to show that on stage. Our lead is a black woman playing the part of Antigone. Would that have happened on other stages around the country? Probably not – and that’s not to do with lack of ability, it’s just that other theatres wouldn’t cast this play in the way that we have.

Pilot has worked on Lord of the Flies, Sing Yer Hearts Out For the Lads – and now Antigone. It seems a bit of a departure.
It could be a bit stuffy and a bit Greek drama with people in togas, but this is a Pilot production! It’s fun sometimes to get people in to see something and then crack open their expectations. Some young people will be studying this on the syllabus for their GCSEs and A Levels – although that’s not why we’ve programmed it – but for some of those young people that means seeing our production of this story will be their first experience of theatre. They will come and see a play that has a strong central female character that is told in a surprising and vibrant, colourful, very Pilot way.

That sounds like the technology that has become something of a trademark of Pilot will be in evidence.
People seem to think that Pilot is ahead of the game when it comes to using technology, because we use video and music and that sort of stuff in a way that isn’t typical. The truth is though, we have lots of technology available to us in the theatre – we have lighting desks and automatic machinery that brings in scenery and takes it out – that’s all technology. We look at the other technology that is out there – like digital technology – and work out how we can use it. I remember back in 1998 when we were sending out CD Roms with our education packs and people were pulling funny faces at us doing that. Well, some people are pulling funny faces now, with the technology that we’re using today. That’s fine by me. We’re using what’s in the toolbox – and the toolbox is getting bigger.

You used plenty of what’s in the toolbox for your most recent project when Pilot Theatre branched into cinema.
Yes, we got the rights six years ago to the Young Adult novel The Knife the Killed Me. It took six years for the film to make it to screen, but that’s something that we now have on the list of Pilot productions. For me though what was interesting and important was the story at the heart of that (the movie, funded by Universal, was shot entirely on green screen in studio). We could have thrown as much CGI as you like at that film, but unless the story and the performances at the heart of the story worked, then all the CGI in the world makes no difference.

Coming back to Antigone, why do you think it will appeal to Pilot’s teenage audience?
Young people are faced with extreme circumstances. This is a play about extreme circumstances: it’s about power struggles and corruption and defiance and betrayal – there is a reason the story is still being told after 2000 years.

What’s next on the horizon for Pilot? You remained an NPO in the latest round of Arts Council funding?
We’ve got several projects that we’re working on, but for me the biggest thing we have to do over the next three years is remain creative. We’ve built into our planning for the next three years what I call ‘airlock spaces’. It’s a slot in the schedule where we haven’t planned anything, where we don’t have anything on the slate, because that means we can respond to what’s going on around us and we can create something in response to what we think is relevant at the time. If you have the next three years blocked out entirely and know exactly what you’re doing then you can’t respond to what’s happening around you. I want us to be light on our feet and able to respond to what is in the news and what people are talking about.

Interviews by Nick Ahad

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