An Interview with Ellen McDougall

The plays of Sophocles have always attracted the imaginations of playwrights and directors, dealing as they do with such profound and timeless themes. This spring, the Unicorn Theatre in London is putting on a double bill of adaptations of two of his plays, Antigone and Philoctetes, in performances which are aimed at the younger audience. Iris took the opportunity to ask the director Ellen McDougall some questions about her latest project:


As a director you have received much critical praise, being nominated for an Olivier Award last year for your West End production of Ivan and the Dogs. What inspired you to take on this new and exciting project? 

 I have always been interested in Greek plays: they are structurally so brilliantly put together and always involve matters of life and death which is very challenging and exciting to delve into.

Was it difficult to direct a production specifically designed for children? Do you feel that you keep faithfully to the original text?

Working for children is a hugely enjoyable task: its really important to make sure it stays interesting minute by minute, and that the story and characters are really clear at every stage. But these are things that are important for any audience. We have invited children into rehearsals to get their feedback, and watch their reactions - they are very good at letting us know what works and what doesn't - and this is very useful and has certainly shaped the way I've directed both pieces. For example, there are moments, or details, in Philoctetes that I didn't realise would be funny for 10 year olds, but seeing that they are has enabled us to develop them further and hopefully make them even more enjoyable.

Both versions are incredibly faithful to 'original' versions of the plays: although of course there are lots of versions and translations with any Greek text so finding a stable 'original' is problematic. Ryan used Jean Anouilh's version of Antigone as well as Sophocles' for example, as references for his version. In terms of the plot points, and the ambition and scale of both pieces, they are very faithful. Our version of Antigone, I think, is more interesting than some other versions because it casts Creon as a human being, fallible, and ultimately trying to do his best. Other versions depict him as a more typical villian, wanting to punish Antigone: so in a way, this version is more complex and human.

Philoctetes is a “problem play”, in that it cannot accurately be cast in the tragic mould. But the play, depicting the machinations of the Machiavellian Odysseus and his attempts to control the naive Neoptolemus, cannot be seen as comic either. However, the title of your adaptation, The Man with the Disturbingly Smelly Foot, seems to suggest a wholly comic interpretation of the play. Do you see that as an unfair criticism?

Well the thing about comedy, I think, is that things are funny because we recognise them, and maybe they make us feel a bit uncomfortable - it is this recognition and awkwardness that make us laugh. This version of Philoctetes has pushed the characters towards a more comic rendering of the story, but the seriousness of the themes: betrayal, injustice, lies, the cost of true friendship, and the pain of loss are, in turn, thrown into sharper relief by the lighter moments of characterisation.

Antigone is one of the most famous plays in the Classical canon, spawning numerous adaptations and translations. What do you think is the reason for its enduring appeal?

It presents us with an endless, insoluble problem: both Creon and Antigone are doing what they think is right. And both of their beliefs clash in the most direct and painful way. 

The question of how far you would go to stand up for what you believe in is another element of it that is completely captivating: Antigone goes further than most people would - to the bitter end - for what she believes is right. This is why we have surtitled it 'How to Think the Unthinkable' - because Antigone demonstrates how to go further than anyone usually would or could.

As a director of a Classical tragedy there is a fine balance between being faithful to the context in which a play was written and trying to produce an innovative interpretation of a play for a modern audience. Do you feel this conflict when directing? Which of the two schools of thought do you support in your productions?

That is definitely one of the main challenges of directing Classical plays. I have tried to be faithful to these specific versions of them: Philoctetes foregrounds the fact it is set 'in the mythological' age, so we have tried to incorporate what a contemporary audience might understand by that description. The characters use a very modern sounding idiom in both pieces, so the costumes are contemporary to support the sense that these characters are recognisable in the modern world. Our version of Antigone is fairly secular, in the sense that there isn't 'the hand of god' orchestrating the plot - so again the costumes are modern, but because the situation is so extraordinary we have pushed it into a contemporary location (Iraq/middle east) that can support the plot - ie where there is an unstable political regime, the death penalty, and a ruling elite.

What was your experience of Classics before undertaking this recent venture? Did you learn any Classical subjects at school?

I studied Greek stories at school a little, but really fell in love with them when I did a course in Tragedy at University.

From your experiences working in youth theatre, what role do you think Classics has to play in the school curriculum?

The classics are brilliant because they can introduce young people to basic philosophical debates through lively, vivid and really amazingly plotted stories. The way problems and tragedies unfold in the Greek plays are really extraordinary lessons in how to put together a good story! They also invite young people to imagine how they would stage the stories: there is a lot of scope to adapt them or try them out in different locations or contexts. They are also a great way to get into acting: the characters in Greek palys are generally very clear about how they feel or what they want, whereas in more modern plays, this is often in the subtext.

What plans do you have after you have finished working on Antigone and Philoctetes?

I am working on a translation project for Company of Angels - a German play for young people.

Thanks very much Ellen, and best of luck with everything!

You can find more information about the plays on the Unicorn Theatre website.