Antigone: Nairobi Performing Arts Studio Sets Theme For International Women’s Day


Article by: Lewis-Miller Kaphira

Publication date:

Ten minutes to 6 pm on the evening of Saturday, 9th March, the overhead speakers at the foyer of the Alliance Francaise, Nairobi belted out calming instrumental music as if to try to pacify the seemingly over-enthusiastic theatre-goers. Their enthusiasm was justifiable though. 

In just a few minutes, the doors to the Wangari Maathai Auditorium would be opening for Antigone – an adapted version of the French Play Antigone by French dramatist, Jean Anouilh. In its advertisement flyer, the Nairobi Performing Arts Studio had promised to bring to the fore the plight of oppressed women worldwide, mirroring the resistance spirit of the French in 1944 through a Kenyanised version of Antigone.

The entire cast of Antigone at the end of the play. Photo credits: Keith Ang'ana

Inspired by a 441 BC Athenian play of the same name by Greek playwright Sophocles, Anouilh’s Antigone is a tragedy centred on a young, headstrong female character called Antigone. 

When Oedipus, King of Thebes and Antigone’s dad dies, his sons Etocles and Polynices are supposed to take turns as King. However, after a year in power, Etocles, the elder brother, refuses to relinquish the seat for Polynices as was the agreement hitherto. In response, Polynices plots to unseat Etocles. The two brothers kill each other in a fierce duel after which Creone, brother to the late King, assumes Kingship. 

When Creone assumes power, he dictates that only Eteocles’s body should receive a proper burial. Polynices’s body, on the other hand, should be left to rot away in the open battlefield as punishment. Creone also declares that whoever attempts to give Polynices’s body a decent burial will be executed. 

Propelled by her endearment towards her elder brother and her sense of moral justice, Antigone sets out to bury her brother despite Creone’s decree. Antigone’s actions put Creone in a tight position – having to choose between following his decree and executing Antigone his niece or preserving her life and facing public wrath and civic unrest.  

Gadwill Odhiambo’s (who also plays Herman in the play) Kenyan version of Antigone follows much the same plot as its predecessor albeit with an interesting twist. It is set in State House, Nairobi following the death of former president Idipo. Upon Idipo’s death, his sons Polycarp and Eugene are to alternate the presidency between them with Eugene taking the presidency for the first five years, before handing over to Polycarp. 

However, Eugene refuses to relinquish power at the end of his term and a battle ensues resulting in both the brothers killing each other. Koron (Wakio Mzenge) the erstwhile Vice President and also Antigone’s godmother assumes presidency and accords Eugene a proper burial but dictates that Polycarp’s body be left outside to rot as an example of what could happen to anyone who instigates violence. 

The play opened with a prologue by the ever colourful Andrew Muthure, who not only drew in but also carried the audience through with his rich baritone voice, introducing the characters and giving a prelude. As part of the prelude, Herman is seen to inexplicably leave the more beautiful and luscious Semene (Faith Kibathi) for her sister – the rugged and antagonistic Antigone. 

The opening prologue by Andrew Muthure. Seated on the floor of the stage is Antigone. Photo credits: Keith Ang'ana

Following the opening prologue, Antigone (Lorna Lemi) is seen sneaking back home in the wee hours of the morning where she is met with the wrath of her Aunty (Scarlet Sakwa). At first, Antigone lies that she had been out walking. But with a little more pressure from Aunty, she shifts the narrative to having been from seeing a lover. Awoken by the scolding of Aunty, Semene comes into the living room and after an impassioned argument with Antigone, warns her against trying to bury the body of their brother Polycarp.

Shortly thereafter, Herman comes visiting and Antigone breaks her engagement to him, explaining that her destiny is already set. Heartbroken, Herman leaves, paving the way for another impassioned argument between Antigone and Semene who tries to impress on Antigone the need to obey Koron’s orders. However, all this is in vain as Antigone confesses to having already buried Polycarp. 

Koron then learns from one of her guards – Jonah (Cosmas Kirui) – that an attempt had been made at covering up Polycarp’s body and a toy shovel left behind in the process. Fearing public unrest, Koron commands the guards to uncover the body and to keep secret the attempt at burying Polycarp’s body. Antigone is soon arrested and taken to Koron.

Caught in between executing her earlier decree and preserving the life of her god-daughter Antigone, Koron implores Antigone to renounce her action and to go back to her room as she (Koron) tries to cover up her actions. Antigone is adamant about it, believing that she did the right thing for her brother’s soul. Koron further tries to impress on Antigone to “forget all the madness” and settle into a happy life of marriage with her son Herman. Again, Antigone is adamant and a fierce argument ensues and escalates and at one time, Koron even slaps Antigone. 

Pushed to the absolute edge, Koron calls for the execution of Antigone by being immured in a stone cave in the Karura Forest and left for dead. For a brief moment, the voice of the prologue, Andrew Muthure, tries to persuade Koron to change her decision, but Koron stands her ground believing that she has exhausted all other possible alternatives. 

On learning of Antigone’s fate, Herman tries to plead with Koron to have mercy on Antigone and a heated mother-son argument ensues with Herman blaming Koron for not doing enough as a mother. Koron refuses to relent.

In the scene that follows, realising that her end is nigh, Koron asks Jonah to write a letter dedicated to Herman on her behalf. In a fracas shortly thereafter, Antigone is led away to face her fate.

The voice of the prologue comes in, narrating the sudden twist. As the mouth of the cave was being sealed, a loud cry, different from Antigone’s voice, was heard. The guards quickly dug through the stone blockade they had erected to find Herman who had just shot himself lying in a large pool of blood next to Antigone’s body. Upon learning of his son’s death, Yuridi (Dominic Mutemi), Koron’s husband takes his life. The play ends with a sad Koron leaving for a cabinet meeting. 

Bar the transposition of the Greek character names to Kenyan ones, the most Kenyan thing about Gladwell’s Antigone were the guards; Jonah, Philomena (Vivian Nyawira) and the Corporal (Gideon Njoroge) who deftly injected humour into what is otherwise a tragedy. In their crude handling of Antigone after her arrest, their use of sheng’ buzzwords and phrases such as kumalo, kudonjo and Ni nini ladies? And their general mien, they vividly captured the essence of the typical Kenyan police officer.

Peering into the character of the guards and contrasting them with the group they are meant to satirise – the Kenyan police officers – perhaps the salient but nuanced message was that they aren’t necessarily harsh and insensitive brutes, but rather mindless executors of orders from their seniors. 

Apart from the two central characters, Antigone and Koron, Jonah was the other shining star in the play, cracking up the audience with his loquaciousness and an overly animated persona. More than anything, Jonah was instrumental in neutralising the sting in the more depressing parts of the play and lightening the mood of the audience by offering comic relief.

Premised on two headstrong female characters in the mould of Koron and Antigone, and showing around the occasion of International Women’s Day (March 8th), Gadwill’s Antigone couldn’t have come at a better time. In Koron, we see a headstrong woman who tries to balance her responsibility to her family and the demands of the presidency. Perhaps, the question the playwright was trying to ask is whether a woman can have it all. A victim of circumstances, Koron is seen to ultimately choose country over family.

The titular character, Antigone on the other hand embodies resilience and fearlessness. She is willing to sacrifice her engagement to Herman and even her life in pursuit of what she believes is right. Through Antigone, the playwright deliberately sought to make iron-clad resolve and tenacity the running theme of the adapted play and by extension, this year’s International Women’s Day. To this end, Gadwill was immaculately successful. A lingering question however is whether more could have been done to further Kenyanise the play.