Antigone – National Theatre, until the 21July 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 favour of the narrative. 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.

Christopher Eccleston and Jodie Whittaker (Antigone) are very good as the incarnations of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. Whittaker is the primal force of nature appealing to an older, natural law that dictates that man does not proscribe law over the dead, whereas Ecclestone is the face of modernity and represents the idea that the rule of the state has dominion over all, and the role of leader includes enforcing the law without exception in order to prevent wider anarchy.

Findlay’s production, ably assisted by Eccleston’s and Whittaker’s performances, brings to the surface an interesting human aspect to both characters that can sometimes be lost by the focus on the play’s philosophical questions. It explores the human frailty of insecurity and the way it can manifest itself in human nature with terrible consequences. Both Creon and Antigone find themselves challenged by reasoned counter-arguments from trusted sources but in each case their insecurity leads them to further entrenching themselves in their original positions rather than looking to the middle ground.

The roots of this insecurity lies in very different reasons. Antigone is haunted by the curse of being part of Oedipus’ family and is so consumed by notions of justice for Polyneices that Ismene, her remaining sister, is unable to do more than make a fruitless appeal for rationality over what Antigone hopes to achieve.

Whittaker does well in what is a challenging role for a modern actor; Antigone is given little stage time and starts from a position of heightened emotion and rarely leaves that level. It gives an actor little room to manoeuvre but Whittaker manages to find some room so that when Antigone finally rejects her sister’s right to die alongside her the audience can see it as a further extension of her move away from reason, rejecting all of those that do not meet her own perceived moral standards.

Eccleston’s Creon has far more time to develop and as such is more effective. We see him challenged by three voices; the guard, his son and Teiresias, the trusted mystic. Each warns him of his actions and each time he rejects their advice. Eccleston makes clear the transition from benevolent monarch in victory, who gives the lowly soldier the chance to speak his mind, to the frustrated autocrat in power, who casts out his son for reflecting the whispers of the populace.

Findlay’s use of external voices is extremely effective. By sticking rigidly to the unity of place the audience are drawn into sharing Creon’s increasing bunker mentality. It is clear that his compatriots are mainly yes-men and the only dissenting voices are those that enter from the outside-world. Each time they appear they present a conflicting vision of society to Creon and each time Creon finds solace in the fact that it he is acting in the best interest of the state.

This is shattered by the entrance of Teiresias (a barn-storming performance by Jamie Ballard). Taylor’s production has stripped most of the poetry out of the text but has very sensibly kept it in place for the soothsayer. It is impossible to present a modernist take on his role and maintain integrity to the original story, as talk of gods and curses are central to the plot. His speech needs to be full of allusion and metaphor and Taylor’s translation gives it this space. Ballard doesn’t disappoint and the heightened verse acts as a lightning bolt of its own, as it is so thrillingly jarring with what has gone before. Yet Creon continues to reject the advice and, despite clear warnings, continues in pursuit of the play’s inevitably tragic destination.

Overall this production of Antigone can be seen as good, if not ground-breaking. It has the virtues of pace, vitality and a smart, modern translation but is let down by a certain safeness in production, the audience rarely feels like it is being challenged and by stripping out much of the poetic there is less the actors can do with the script. However one must also be thankful that the more obvious references to global terrorism were only obliquely hinted at and there wasn’t a Guantanamo-themed orange jumpsuit in sight.

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