This March, Scotland’s leading group for performers with learning difficulties, Lung Ha’s Theatre Company, presents a new version of Sophocles‘ ‘Antigone’, the classic story of a young woman standing up against society for what she believes is right.
Combining drama with live music (performed by members of the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland) and new choreography, this is possibly the company’s most challenging production to date. Paul F Cockburn recently spoke with artistic director Maria Oller and the composer Kenneth Dempster to learn about the show’s origins.
PFC: Why did you choose to do a Classical Greek tragedy?
MO: I’ve been working with Lung Ha’s for three years now. We’ve had a theme every year, giving the actors a wider knowledge about theatre in general. Last year our theme was the late 1800s, so we did Chekhov [Chekhov Shorts, two new short plays by Carol Rocamora, inspired by two of Anton Chekhov’s short stories] and (Jules Verne’s) Around The World In 80 Days. This year I wanted to go back to the roots of European theatre, and give them experience of that; also, as a director, I thought: “Fantastic! I have a big ensemble, so I can have a proper chorus for a Greek tragedy.”
Then I started to look into what I would like to do. I contacted (writer) Adrian Osmond and, together, we read a lot of different plays. ‘Antigone’ was my first choice; I read other things as well, but ‘Antigone’ stayed with me. It has a relevance to it, with what’s happening in the Arab Spring, in Syria, the demonstrations in Russia, the riots (in England) last summer. It’s about what is right and what is wrong and how much you have to pay for standing up for what you believe in. Is it your life? Is it hope? Is it something better, something worse?
About a year ago, I got an invitation from the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland (NYOS) to come and listen to one of their productions; it was just at the time when I was thinking about what kind of music would I like to do? Did I want to do Greek music or do something punk? I went to this concert and it just felt so right, to have classically-trained musicians on stage. I want to integrate the music with the play; and that idea came from that concert.
KD: That was the concert I was conducting. It was music all based on — or inspired by moments from — films or animations, so it also had a visual element. It was sort of fortuitous.
MO: It was (NYOS Chief Executive) Julian Clayton who brought us together; I contacted him after that concert, asking if they would be interested in collaborating with Lung Ha’s. He said yes; that they we’re looking into new ways for their musicians to experience what it is to be a performer, not only to play in an orchestra, but in theatre. Julian contacted Ken, and that’s how we started our project.
KD: What I like most about ‘Antigone’ is that it’s so personal. ‘Antigone’ is one of four siblings — two girls, two boys. The two boys have been involved in a civil war and they’ve both ended up dead; King Creon has said one will be buried, and one will lie out and not be buried. ‘Antigone’’s saying, despite the rights and wrongs, this guy needs to be buried like any other decent human; that whatever wrongs he did, he still deserves a proper burial. I warmed to that. There are lots of different aspects to the play, lots of different ways of looking at it and, as Maria says, there’s lots of characters. It’s a large cast; there are lots of opportunities for involving everyone.
PFC: How did you work together?
KD: We met a couple of times and talked about some of the practical considerations — how much music Maria wanted, what length, how many players and what kind of instruments there’s be, what kind of sound. We also discussed the kind of music; whether Maria wanted me to particularly try and evoke Ancient Greece. Once we got that all sorted, Adrian worked on the script and I worked on the music, independently. It wasn’t quite as much a collaboration as we would have liked, but the timescale dictated that.
MO: There was a time when I wondered — how is this going to get together? But it’s just fitting in so well.
KD: Often in these situations I find that not having too much collaboration can be quite a good thing. Adrian worked on the script, Maria had her directing ideas. I was developing musical themes, highlighting all the main points of drama or emotion — some moments being maybe reflective, others music moments looking forward, trying to create a variety of music. We worked independently in relation to this great play; now is the great coming together of all the different parts. It’s a jigsaw puzzle now, but it’s gone very well; it’s been a very good, productive working relationship.
MO: I don’t want to be a dictator; there are some directors who want to be in charge of everything, but I like the collaboration, I think it’s very important.
KD: We’ve really appreciated that. You have final say on everything, but it’s great that you’re open to so much stuff coming in; you’re absorbing everything at this stage, and then you’ll sort it all out. It’s a very fine balance to get the most out of everyone.
PFC: Have you done anything like this before?
KD: I’ve done similar productions before, though they’ve usually been more musical theatre and opera. I’ve not done so much incidental music for theatre; this is the largest project I’ve done like this. I’ve worked with other directors in the past, so I know what the challenges can be in bringing movement and dialogue and music all together. It’s a very exciting process. There are so many people all feeding in ideas; it’s a very exciting artform.
MO: This is a big production for Lung Ha’s. Each year we do one big show with the full company, and then one small-scale touring production, such as Medea’s Children, which we did during the Edinburgh Festival.
KD: The music in that show was very different; one composer/musician on stage, with his guitar. I thought the music was fantastic, quite moving.
MO: I wanted the music to be an equal part of the story-telling, but with ‘Antigone’ movement is also a big element; (choreographer) Janis Claxton is also going to be on stage.
PFC: How have the cast coped with all the challenges of this production?
MO: They’re very excited about it.
KD: They seem to have adapted very quickly. I thought maybe it would throw them a bit having all these musical sounds blasting out, but they seem to have accepted it instantly that our cast has expanded. They’ve been great; everyone’s mixed very nicely, it’s been a lovely collaboration.
MO: That’s the really lovely thing about ‘Antigone’; I have been lucky enough to get wonderful, really professional people in the production team. It’s been such a privilege working with them.