In March 2017, students of Edwardes College in Peshawar won admiring reviews for their production of Antigone by Sophocles. The young actors enrolled at this late-Victorian foundation – now affiliated to the University of Peshawar – live in a province of Pakistan where the tragedy’s backdrop of fratricidal strife, family division and murderous combat between clashing sources of authority could hardly feel more urgent. As I write, the recently-concluded election campaign in Pakistan has witnessed a suicide attack on a party rally in Peshawar that killed 21. In December 2014, a co-ordinated assault on the city’s Army Public School by six fighters affiliated to the Pakistan Taliban left 156 dead.
Peshawar, and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province as a whole, remains a place where centralised power struggles to enforce its legitimacy. Rebels and rivals, without and within, seek to challenge the state. The forces of order, embodied by the Pakistani army, prove at gunpoint that they heartily endorse the demand of Sophocles’ embattled ruler Creon: ‘that man the city places in authority, his orders must be obeyed, large and small, right and wrong. Anarchy – show me a greater crime in all the earth!’ Meanwhile, Sophocles’ defiant heroine still casts her far-reaching spell. For Professor Nasir Iqbal, director of the Edwardes College production of Antigone, her resistance to sacrilegious despotism should give to young women ‘the lesson to stand against all odds and face every condition courageously’.
Like so much of what counts as ‘Western’ culture, Greek tragedy has long found a welcoming home in the Indian sub-continent. Writers, directors and actors absorb, adapt and repurpose the few surviving texts from the heyday of European classical antiquity with never-failing ingenuity. In early 2018, for instance, Antigone returned to the stage in Delhi, at the Theatre Olympics festival, in a production by the Mandala Theatre of Nepal. Performed in Nepali, in a translation by Som Nath Khanal and Bikram Pariyar, this latest incarnation arose from director Rajan Khatiwada’s search for a way to respond in drama to ‘political dishonesty and corruption’. For Khatiwada, ‘Though written in an ancient timeframe, the play Antigone depicts the contemporary issues of Nepal.’