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Inmates explore morals in Greek theatre

Inmates performed an abridged version of an Ancient Greek play, using puppets.

Is pride the ultimate crime? It is a big moral question that a group of inmates at Auckland Prison explored when they performed an Ancient Greek play using puppets, in a partnership between the prison and Massey University.

The project involved seven inmates who staged an abridged version of Antigone, by Sophocles (written around 441 BC) last week. The aim was to cultivate the performance skills and confidence of the participants, says Dr Rand Hazou. He is a senior lecturer in theatre, based in the School of English and Media Studies at the Auckland campus. Along with storyteller and theatre-maker Derek Gordon, he led the Theatre Behind Bars project at the prison in Paremoremo through his interest in community theatre and social change.

He says theatre can provide a constructive platform through which prison inmates are able to explore deeper personal, family and social issues, giving them the opportunity to develop creative and communication skills, as well as understandings of human behaviour through storytelling.

The production, Puppet Antigone, by the group called the Unit 9 Theatre Group, built on a series of introductory theatre workshops Dr Hazou organised at the prison in May and June. The latter was facilitated by Canadian theatre director David Diamond, artistic and managing director of the Vancouver based company Theatre for Living. “As a result of these initial engagements, a small theatre group has developed at the prison that is interested in continuing to engage with theatre practice,” Dr Hazou says.

Inmates at Auckland Prison at Paremoremo performing the Greek play, Antigone. (photo/supplied)

Old play but relevant story

He says the show went well, and the response of the 40 audience members – made up of prison staff and invited guests, including some Massey staff, and a large contingent of inmates – was overwhelming.

“This was wicked! I’ve never done anything like this before, and even though it is an old play, we understood the story,” one of the actors said. “I’ve also learned about the power of standing still in one place when acting, but using my arms, voice, and facial expressions, especially my eyes, to communicate with the audience.”

Kellie Paul, Principal Advisor Rehabilitation and Learning at Auckland Prison, says that participating in Antigone was “a powerful and challenging experience for the men involved in the Theatre Behind Bars project.

“They really had to push the boundaries. The actors also had to memorise complex lines in a short period of time, and learn how to manipulate puppets for the first time to add dramatic effect to their performance. Auckland Prison is privileged to have access to the expertise of Rand and Derek to help the prisoners explore their strengths, improve their learning and education, and develop their self-confidence.”

While the utterances and dilemmas of Ancient Greek characters may seem far removed from the realities of New Zealand prison life in the 21st century, Dr Hazou says the play provides “a creative opportunity for inmates to cultivate their emotional, physical and literacy skills by adapting a classic written play into performance.”

After all, the play hinges on a key quote from Tiresias, one of the main characters: “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.”

The play tells the story of Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, who insists on giving her dead brother, Polynices, a form of ritual burial in keeping with divine laws. But her brother has been ruled a traitor by her uncle, King Creon, who has decreed that anyone caught giving burial rites will be executed. The play questions whether Antigone should follow her heart and insist that family responsibilities and religious rites are more important than the city’s law. Or should she bow to her uncle and king and follow the responsibilities expected of a citizen to the state?

“The play raises important questions about ethics, standing up for what is right, and not bowing to authority. But it also raises questions about pride, which is described in the play as ‘the only crime’ that men make,” Dr Hazou says.

Kellie Paul (Principal Advisor Rehabiltation and Learning at Auckland Prison); Derek Gordon and Dr Rand Hazou (Massey Unversity); with Simon Chaplin (Assistant Prison Director, Auckland Prison). (photo/supplied)

Why the play Antigone?

By exploring the primal and universal desire to respect the dead with due rites and the sacred obligation to provide the dead a dignified transition from the land of the living to the world of ancestors, the play holds cultural resonances with Aotearoa, he says.

“Māori tikanga are well-known for rituals and protocols to deal with the dead, and the conflict in Antigone would be immediately recognised by Māori and Pākehā alike. The play also highlights the conflict between men and women in a patriarchal society and demonstrates the harsh and tragic consequences for one woman who decides to stand up to this patriarchal power.”


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