Review: Antigone, National Theatre

“When things must be, they will be”

Though the prospect of a different kind of Greek tragedy is one that is dominating our headlines at the moment, the ancient Greek kind remain an enduring presence in our theatres. Sophocles’ Antigone is the latest to re-emerge at the National Theatre with director Polly Findlay using Don Taylor’s version of the play, originally done for the BBC in the 1980s. Her production locates this version of Thebes somewhere in the North of England in the late 1970s (at least that’s when I reckoned but others in the group were less sure) in which Jodie Whittaker and Christopher Eccleston take the leading roles.

Thebes has been wracked by civil war and turmoil and in the aftermath of a particularly bloody struggle between the two brothers fighting over the throne, Creon seizes control and becomes king. To stamp his authority on the city, Creon opts to bury one brother but leaves the body of the other more rebellious one to rot outside on the battlefield. This horrifies Antigone, sister to the men and niece to Creon, and despite a royal decree forbidding anyone to touch his body on the pain of death, she sets about doing what she thinks is right.

Whittaker rises to the challenge of the lead role beautifully. Her righteous anger at the indignities imposed on what remains of her family burns fiercely, especially in the face of her sister Ismene’s meek compliance (Annabel Scholey in fine form), as she unremittingly pursues her own path, to fulfil her own beliefs, at whatever cost. If there is any weakness, it is that Findlay seems too keen to make Antigone the sympathetic heroine here, the production is weighted a little too heavily in her favour where I think the point that Sophocles is making is that there are two sides to fundamentalism: Creon’s tyrannical obduracy is horrific, but it is exacerbated by a woman utterly unprepared to compromise in her own beliefs and this headstrong nature is never really interrogated here.

Eccleston slips into the shoes of his unreconstructed 70s man with consummate ease, perhaps a little too comfortable of a characterisation initially at least, but he really sparks into life with an impassioned, physical debate with his son Haemon, the fresh-faced Luke Newberry, about the nature of autocratic rule and the dangers of failing to listen to all sides. Adamant about the supremacy of the state and in his personification of said state, he is most convincing as the too-proud dictator and as this was an early preview, I’m sure he’ll dig a little deeper to expose more raw grief in the final moments to really highlight his tragic fall.

Jamie Ballard (fortunately released by the early closure of Written on the Heart) seems to be developing a bit of a fetish for latex prosthetics as his forthright prophet Teiresias is mightily disfigured (and bizarrely attached to his boy guide) and persuasively well spoken (even if I’m not sure the interpretation really allows for an effective shift into the gods-fearing spiritual). And Zoë Aldrich’s Eurydice weaves through the production wordlessly until it is her turn to contribute to the vengeful retribution against Creon, though one does wish Sophocles had constructed more for so central a character.

But her wordlessness works perfectly with Findlay’s representation of gender relations in this world. Aside from the fundamental issue of Antigone and Ismene being subjugated to the will of their uncle and the above-mentioned largely silenced Eurydice, the only other women in the play are a secretary and a cleaner and in one of the show’s most powerful sequences, the men of the office all stop to leer over the cleaner sweeping up some broken crockery in a deeply uncomfortable but horribly believable moment.  

The 9-strong chorus are also effectively portrayed here, made up of the ministers, flunkies and office functionaries around Creon and with an intriguing mixture of loyalties towards their new master. Even as they are hailing the new leader and his hard-line policies, the hints of ambiguity are still present and only grow bigger as Creon’s obstinacy leads him astray. Luke Norris’ soldier adds another subversive note, although comically lighter, with an enjoyable performance.

In Soutra Gilmour’s revolving set of an open plan office with smoked glass office cubicles at the back, Findlay has teased a strong set of performances from her ensemble and I can only imagine these will improve. Where I’m not so sure she’s as strong is in the directorial flourishes she has imposed: scene changes are needlessly extended with wordless, almost balletic sequences of people rushing about which add little when all is said and done; and the opening tableau with its evocations of the table watching the capture of Osama reaches for a timelessness which the rest of the production doesn’t reflect and ultimately is quite the red herring.

Ultimately I rather enjoyed this version of Antigone which has much to commend it and was thought-provoking in ways in which I had not anticipated, especially in its gender relations. It’s not perfect by any means and memories of recent productions, or more accurately certain aspects of them – the modern-day Middle Eastern setting of the Southwark Playhouse’s Antigone or Moira Buffini’s creation of a fully-rounded character for Eurydice in Welcome to Thebes – did make me wish I could create my own pick’n’mix version. But as part of the Travelex season, you can’t really go wrong with a £12 ticket here.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Johan Persson
Programme cost: £3

Booking until 21st July

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