Savannah Gordon-Liburd in rehearsals of Antigone
BAFTA award winning playwright Roy Williams brings his adaptation of Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’ on a UK tour starting this September 2014, before it returns to Theatre Stratford Royal East in early 2015. Bringing to life this character of a well know Greek classis is Savannah Gordon-Liburd, who we get to talk to about her role, her theatre experiences and what’s next on the agenda…
Could you tell us a little bit about Antigone?
It’s basically a story to do with loyalty, truth, life and death. Antigone’s brother is killed and she wants to bury her brother, but she’s been told she’s not allowed to. So it follows her story of going against everyone to do what she feels is right and that’s when it comes down to family and loyalty.
The original Greek play includes the surrounding themes of incest, loyalty, and conflict, how has this version brought it up to date?
Everything is still in there! There’s still the incest and she gets called inbreed a lot of times. Even though her family are high up in society, everyone is still aware of their secrets. So we haven’t changed the story that much to be honest. It’s really contemporary, but the actual back story remains the same. The language; the environment and character names have changed. Things like Creo, his names Creon in the original, instead of just being ‘King’, even though we sometimes call him ‘King’ in the play, it’s more like he sort of runs the streets, that type of thing to make it more relevant and more modern.
In regards to the above, how does this play stand out from other versions that have been done?
To be honest, when I first got told about doing this play, I didn’t really know anything about Antigone. As I started researching the story, I think we are probably the first mainly black cast ever! So that’s definitely different. Being the black Antigone, the female lead, that’s definitely a first.
Could you tell us a little about Antigone and how you went about developing her character?
She’s confident, brave, headstrong, but she is still an 18-year-old girl. So it was just about me being able to put myself in that position of thinking about if that was to happen to my brother that died. We do a lot of character improvisations that Marcus [Romer] the director gets us to do. Trying to find our character [be it through], random telephone conversations that we might have - that you’ll never see in the play, to help us build our character and who we are; having random conversations with other cast members that I might not even interact with in the actual play. I also watched an old version of Antigone. Doreen Blackstock (who plays Eunice) told me about it. Juliet Stevenson had a version, which I watched on YouTube and that was literally the only one I watched, because I didn’t want to get too influenced by what other actresses were doing. I did find her quite easy to play.
The play is aimed to create an innovative and exciting way for a young theatre audience to enjoy a Greek classic – do you feel that this version will do this?
Yes, definitely! Because even though Antigone is quite dramatic, with a lot of death and crying, we’ve all added so many comedic parts to it. We’ve got really funny characters, such as ‘Soldier 3′ played by Sean Sagar; he’s really funny and brings a lot of comedy to the play. So when there is a death scene, he’ll bounce on stage and make you laugh. Your emotions will be all over the place. I think that will be good for the young people as well as the language, it’s up to date so they’ll understand it more. I know a lot of schools are doing Antigone, so as the old version may be difficult to understand this makes it a lot more simpler to watch, it’s a lot more easier to follow. Instead of King or Queen and this war or that war, we sort of bring it down to maybe gang related violence and people running the streets and a girl getting called a slag because she’s seen as a disgusting inbreed…that type of thing. There are parts that are really, really funny and I think they’ll enjoy. We’ve had a couple of young people come in and watch to study it and everyone has loved it.
Even though it’s mainly aimed at a younger theatre audience, will older members be able to enjoy as much?
It’s not mainly aimed at anyone to be honest. I think it’ll be interesting to see it being told from a different point of view and in a different way, but you might understand and see the story differently from how you may have read it. I even had a conversation with someone the other day and I said even enough older people find it difficult to read old plays, to understand and grasp the concept of what it’s actually about, so I think it’s interesting if they know the story, to see it being told this way and say ‘oh that’s what it meant!’ or ‘I understand it a bit better now’.
That’s what I find is different about this play, because a lot of the classics do get redone, but they still keep the same language and atmosphere, leaving you still a bit confused…
Exactly! It’s like I didn’t understand it reading it, so why would I understand it on stage! The language is just like how you and me are talking now, so it’s so much easier to follow. The story and the meaning behind it is exactly the same.
What about this play and the character made you want to be a part of it?
Marcus actually approached me ages ago with the idea, because I worked with him in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner in 2012…This would have been my first lead. I thought I definitely want to try it and see how it is, I mean you wouldn’t say no, and to play a female lead and because I knew I would be one of the first black female leads for a play like this and because I loved her character, she’s different and to bring something so old, up to date and to modernise it, I thought it was interesting. I love how strong and how loyal she is, and all the things she has to go through and still be strong, whilst battling [other] emotions as an 18 year-old. Working with Roy [Williams] again, everyone knows Roy; he’s such a good playwright so I couldn’t turn it down.
Apart from being a Greek classic, how has this production differed from others you have been apart of?
This is only my fourth production. My first one was Mogadishu and I did that twice and then the last one was The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, so I don’t have that much to base it off, but Antigone is just not your typical story. The plays I’ve done have always been about strong males, what they have had to go through and their experiences at home. So this one is mostly to do with her as a woman being surrounded by all these strong men and being able to stand up and say what’s right and not care what anyone else is doing. She just goes with her heart and what she knows is right. I’ve always played the lead role’s girlfriend, that’s always been my thing, so for me to actually play the lead female that’s completely different from anything I’ve ever done.
As you mentioned before, you’ve worked with Roy before in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner; what has the experience been like working with him and the rest of the cast this time round?
It’s been great. Three of the cast members are people I worked with on Loneliness…I’m already used to them and how they work. Working with Marcus, we already know how we work together. He allows me to give my opinion and point of view on how things should be done and Roy, he’s really good. With the script, if I don’t understand something or I feel there should be a slight word change, he loves input as well, because then he knows you’re actually really into what you are doing. It’s been easy to work with them, but there was obviously that tiny bit of pressure knowing that they have given me this role and I have worked with them before, so I have to prove to them that they have made the right decision, But then it’s also easy because they know when it comes to show night I’ll be able to do what they want me to do. To work with people you have worked with before, you sort of know their routine and I’m able to stand up and suggest things without feeling like I’m going to get in trouble for it.
Is acting something that you have always wanted to do?
Yes it is. I started doing drama lessons and classes when I was about 5, then I’ve gone to Saturday schools, things like that. I did it at college, got my agent after my last college show and then went into working professionally from then. I haven’t had an interest in anything else. I love animals. I have literally always thought what would I do if I didn’t do this and the only thing that I’m passionate about besides acting, is animals so something like that – God knows! I would probably be saving abused pets.
How has your journey been within the acting industry?
Up and down, because even though I did get my agent straight after college, I didn’t go into doing major work, just a few bits here and there. Then in 2011 when I did Mogadishu at the Royal Exchange and Lyric Hammersmith that’s when things started to go really well for me, like getting to do BBC Dramas and more casting agents and directors knowing who I was. I was getting more auditions and then that’s when I did [Mogadishu] a second year, then got Loneliness, doing this and I’ve done bits of TV in between, but it has been up and down. There are times where you just don’t hear anything for ages and there’s another point where you are constantly out for auditions. It has been all over the place, but I’m hoping once this is done there will be a lot more constant work coming through.
Would you ever consider writing your own production in the near future?
I have thought about it. When I’m on stage, watching directors I think hmm I’d love to do that. I’m not that good at writing! I tried to write something once before and it probably wasn’t that great (laughs). I thought it was great at the time, but I don’t think I have it in me to write. I’ve got the ideas there but to get it down on paper is a bit difficult for me. But I think I would definitely love to direct.
What’s next on the agenda after Antigone?
No idea, because this is such a long process and it doesn’t finish until next year March, I haven’t really been able to book anything. There’s a film coming out that I’m in called Honeytrap, directed by Rebecca Johnson, so I’ve got London Film Festival to look forward to and when the film is released properly in cinemas, which should be early next year, possibly when I’m at Stratford. As it’s such a heavy schedule, you don’t really get any time to yourself, except Saturdays – Mondays; whilst we’re on road we work on Saturdays as well, so it’s actually only Sundays and Mondays off once we’re actually performing. Who knows, hopefully I get loads of good stuff after this.
A Pilot Theatre, Derby Theatre & Theatre Royal, Stratford East Production – Antigone starts its UK Tour from 19th September. Please see below for all dates and links to purchase tickets:
interview with Savannah Gordon-Liburd written for the british blacklist by @Nellie_Ville