Antigone: A very modern ancient Greek tragedy

Antigone – National Theatre, until 21 July 2012

Polly Findlay’s production of Antigone, which runs at a brisk 100 minutes without an interval, is a fine example of balancing the demands of classical Greek tragedy against modern audience sensibilities. In this regard it is helped by Don Taylor’s solid translation that irons out much of the overly heightened poetics in favour of a more earthy realism. This has the dual effect of making the plot a lot less tangled to an audience not raised on the complexities of Grecian mythology and also downplaying the role of the gods in the drama – possibly the single biggest problem in finding contemporary resonance in the surviving works by Greek playwrights.

The text has been filleted to make it performable without a break and this broadly works in the narrative’s favour. Antigone is rooted in conflict  from the opening moments and it doesn’t take long to become apparent that the audience are watching the playing out of a tragedy made inevitable by the choices taken by humans. By removing the interval Findlay is able to keep the tension ratcheted up and allows momentum to build like a wave from first scene to last.

The action is set, effectively if not a little predictably, in the war rooms of Creon’s (Christopher Eccleston) administration. Soutra Gilmour’s set design has done an impressive job of filling the Olivier stage without giving the impression of it being cluttered. This is achieved by partitioning offices towards the back of the stage that has the effect of shortening the vast space by a good 10 metres and forcing most of the action towards the audience. As a result the production feels much more intimate than many staged at the Olivier.

Findlay doesn’t waste the space and there is the constant background buzz of an administration on the brink. The Chorus form the civil servants that run things behind the scenes. There are two very cute moments in the opening moments that help to create a world that is instantly recognisable; the first is what must surely be a deliberate echo of the famous image of Obama and team watching the raid on Osama’s hideout. The second is the chorus’ announcement of the death of Polyneices & Eteocles restaged as the drafting of the press release, with the text being revised to tone down the language of war.

What marks Antigone as one of the most important plays in the Western canon is the fact that, despite it being dated to a period almost 2500 years ago, it is still dealing with issues that are recognisably modern. Other surviving plays are of interest, or contain some certain relevance, to a modern audience but Sophocles captures issues that are still being played out on the world stage in the 21st century.

The idea of the rights of the individual against the rule of the state is one that will never be resolved and Sophocles shows it through an issue that has a stark modern relevance; the death of Osama Bin Laden led to mass protests following his burying at sea, which was seen as breaking Sharia law. This contemporary example amply demonstrates that the right to be buried in accordance with tradition has not diminished over two millennia.

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