Written after Antigone in the 1980s, The Riot Act revisits an ancient Greek tragedy to illustrate the Northern Irish situation in Thatchers days. The play deals with a woman struggling against a patriarchal authority and forced to take desperate measures, in a society where women had been rendered powerless even over their own bodies. It had been first performed in a double bill with High Time by Derek Mahon on September 19, 1984.
In Greek legend, Antigone is the daughter born of the incestuous union of Oedipus and his mother. After Oedipuss death, Antigone and her sister Ismene try to reconcile their brothers Eteocles and Polyneices who are fighting a ruinous war over the crown of Thebes. Each seeks absolute power at the others expense and each finds death at his brothers hand. Therefore, their uncle Creon becomes king. He is one of those bigots who spout platitudes about peace but provoke war. His refusal to allow Antigone to bury her guerrilla brother Polynices is the start of her tragedy but also his own. When he finds out that Antigone is planning a secret burial of Polyneices, whom he has forbidden a funeral, he locks her up in a cave and plans to have her executed. According to Euripides, Antigone escapes and has a happy life with her beloved, Creons son Haemon. According to Sophocles and Paulin, however, she takes her own life and Haemon, her lover, crazed by her death, falls on his sword beside her.
Paulins version of Antigone finds its origin in an argument with Conor Cruise OBrien over the interpretation of the play. OBrien was one of the first to apply the story of Antigone to the Northern Irish situation. From his point of view, Antigones decision was a disputable one for Creons power, even though he had abused it, was legitimate, and the life of the city would become intolerable if citizens should disobey any law that irked their conscience. This commitment in favour of obedience to authority, from Paulins point of view, suggests unacceptable passivity and submission to Northern Irelands status quo (the Unionist state is virtually absolved of all responsibility and Creons hands appear to be clean.).
And Paulin was a man a little patience with those who choose compromission and stability over justice. His play claims itself a transposition to the Northern Irish context as the chorus leader (Ciarán Hinds) states it in the very beginning: ever since the day I first made this speech - it was in another time and place, and in a different language too - the grief I was speaking of then has grown and multiplied.
He wrote his adaptation with both language and references specifically set in the North, describing Creon (a kind of puritan gangster, a megalomaniac who spoke alternately in an English public school voice and a deep menacing Ulster growl,) as a Unionist politician and Antigone as a republican martyr. Unlike classic tragedies which challenge the audience to adapt its views and balance its moral judgement, Paulins adaptation never questions Antigones decisions and his depiction of Creon as a brutal man, although enjoyable for the Irish audience, is a far cry from the balanced ambiguity of Sophocles play, where Antigones behaviour is repeatedly questioned by her sister, her uncle, and the chorus. Antigone works as a play because we are also interested in Creon as a man, concerned with his dilemma and the way he tries to cope with it. Sophocles Creon is a tragic hero as well as a villain. By satirising him from the start, the drama of his conflict with Antigone is rendered impossible. (Fintan OToole in Sunday Tribune)