Sophocles’ Antigone will start previews at the newly refurbished Mercury Theatre in Colchester, England on October 1. Opening October 6 and running through October 16, this adaptation of the well-known tragedy was written by Merlynn Tong (Good Grief, Ma Ma Ma Mad, and Blue Bones). Under the direction of Dawn Walton OBE, the cast includes Francesca Amewudah-Rivers as Ismene, Liz Crowther as Tiresias, Wendy Kweh as Creon, Joseph Payne as Haemon, and Adeola Yemitan in her professional stage debut as Antigone.
The play focuses on the conflict between Antigone, who expects a full burial for her brother, and ruthless leader Creon, who denounced him as a traitor. Antigone’s act of civil disobedience and the clash with Creon set off devastating consequences for everyone.
Wendy Kweh joined me on a transatlantic call to get me up to speed about the rehearsal process, what she likes about Merlynn Tong’s adaptation, and what she looks forward to with playing Creon. Kweh’s many theatre credits include Crave (Chichester Festival Theatre), The Welkin, Top Girls (National Theatre), and Dark Night of the Soul – The Little Sob (Shakespeare’s Globe). She appeared on television in The Bill as series regular DC Suzie Sim, as well as in The Bay and The Crooked Man.
What’s your favorite role been so far in your career?
I can’t pick one out. Honestly, I don’t know because they’ve all been so different. This one might become my favorite one. It’s really hard to tell, like choosing between your children.
Creon is traditionally a male role. What do you like about how it’s being changed this time around?
In her adaptation, Merlynn really wanted to explore the role of a woman in power in a patriarchy. I think it’s traditionally that some of the arguments are about female and male, and they’re clearly demarcated. In this adaptation in our time, it’s quite interesting to explore how free a woman in power in a patriarchal society feels, that she’s able to make her own mark, and how differently she’s judged for it. What different choices might she make if she felt more free? That’s been interesting to explore, which is different from the traditional productions of Antigone.
What’s your approach to bringing a story like this to life for audiences, in terms of research?
It’s quite a well-known story and definitely survived the test of time. You know we’re working on something with really good bones of a play. With each adaptation that comes out, it becomes fresher and more contemporary.
There’s so many stories surrounding the Antigone story: Seven Against Thebes, Oedipus at Colonus, and the Oresteia. All these other plays are part of it. It’s been quite interesting for me to read some of it and see how the characters are spoken about and what they say differently. [I] see the line between the mythical Greek gods and the factual [aspects] of that time. There was a lot of civil war during that period in Athens with surrounding states. It’s been interesting for me because I’m a bit nerdy.
Our rehearsal process has also been detailed. We try to always have in mind: Why this play now? The story is kind of forever, because those debates are always in the back of our mind. They take different faces in the political sphere, the personal sphere, and in the culture wars that are happening now in the UK It’s about saying, what is this fifth-century BC story? Why do we care about it in 2021?
How far are you into rehearsals?
This is the beginning of our second week. We are still going through things, figuring out the shape of the play, and trying stuff out. It’s still in its infancy.
Have you worked with director Dawn Walton before? What do you appreciate about her approach to the play?
No, I haven’t. I think it’s very contemporary, which is in keeping with the adaptation we have. She’s very detailed. It’s important to acknowledge that there’s a classical aspect of the story, but that it’s not all the story: the issues, the debates, and the relationships are not purely in the realm of classical.
Is it challenging to play a character like Creon, who has such a ruthless grip on power?
I think actors are quite interested in people who are not like themselves. [laughs] That’s why we do this job. On the page, [at] first reading, it feels really brutal and awful.
We have a radio program here in the UK called Across the Red Line. In it, they have people with two opposing views, often political and social. They agree to come on the program and to listen to the other person. I think that’s what I try to do. I try to see why this person is the way they are. All actors have to do that. This is what the character does in the story. Now we have to figure out why they do that.
How excited are you to be coming back to in-person performances?
It’s been really lovely. Everybody has been connected to every streaming thing for so long. It’s lovely to be able to work with people again in the flesh, to feel part of a company, and have the audience. Really we do it for them. The audience is an integral part of our job.
I completely understand that people need to be safe and feel safe to come to the theatre, and that people who don’t are finding it difficult. For the people who do come, I hope they realize that just their presence is incredibly powerful when they are sitting in the audience to witness something in real time and share it with us.
Find out more about Antigone at the Mercury Theatre website.