Antigone’s courage inspires a movement

Ancient tale of civil disobedience serves as lens for modern play

Back in 2008 just a week before Christmas Robert D. Kaplan anticipated in a column for The Atlantic that the explosive riots that were then consuming cities all over Greece “might eerily presage disturbances elsewhere in 2009.” In retrospect Kaplan’s predicted year of “disturbances” was a touch off; really it was 2011 that changed everything with the Arab Spring the rise of the Spanish Indignados and Occupy Wall Street as prime examples.

But the Greek riots of 2008 did as Kaplan suspected serve as a prophecy of upheavals to come. Crippling poverty unemployment corruption and government debt certainly weren’t uniquely Greek issues but when combined with the shooting and killing of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in Athens by two police officers during a December altercation they triggered a revolt.

It’s that sense of significance and scope that Enrico Casagrande and Daniela Nicolò — founders and directors of the Italian political theatre company Motus — have attempted to convey through their documentary theatre piece Alexis: A Greek Tragedy since its premiere in 2010. The play tells the tale of the shooting of Alexandros (the Alexis of the title) and ensuing violence through a reinterpretation of Sophocles’ Antigone an ancient tale of civil disobedience that has served as the lens for three other Motus productions.

“Polynices becomes Alexis” says Nicolò in an email interview. “It’s a pretext actually because what interested us through the entire Antigone project was to get in touch with a new generation that — deprived of its future — is waking up and getting organized.”

The production duo actually learned of the murder and repercussions while exploring the question of who Antigone is in the 21st century (in Sophocle’s play Antigone was the resilient character who buried her brother Polynices against the orders of Creon prompting a thematic examination of the tension between personal and state duties). Alexis thus took on a meta-theatrical form incorporating the discoveries that Casagrande and Nicolò made in the process of creating the piece.

Such an approach was inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s concept of the “distancing effect” an idea devised in the 1930s that intentionally disturbs the fourth wall typically established between audience and actor; such a method is intended to force viewers to intellectualize what happens onstage. In Alexis this happens in the form of videos of the riots interviews with witnesses and reflections of the creative team on the process as well as incorporating the perspectives of participants.

Nicolò says that during the rehearsal process Alexia a woman who lives in the neighbourhood Grigoropoulos was killed in provided a lot of information and raised questions around the overall ‘meaning’ and intention of Motus’ project. “It came to the point that we felt the obligation of inserting these conversations born during the devising process into the actual show. That’s how we work with actors; they are never mere executers but intellectually engaged in the entire process” she explains.

Everything that Casagrande and Nicolò have integrated into the production is intended to teach challenge and motivate audiences around the world — a mission made even more crucial as the events of 2008 have rapidly spread. Notably Italy — the home of Casagrande and Nicolò — has experienced similar events that preceded the Greek riots with privatization and public spending cuts forcing “degrowth” as Nicolò puts it. Antigone is becoming a metaphor for the ongoing austerity age.

“We all have an Antigone in ourselves we just need to listen to her” Nicolò says. “We hope the audiences learn how to listen to one’s Antigone and to have the courage to leave our protected homes to meet other people undergoing the same difficulties. It all starts with small gestures of sharing co-operation degrowth boycotting and disobedience.”