sat 20/07/2024

Antigone, National Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Antigone, National Theatre

Antigone, National Theatre

The classic Greek tragedy gets a makeover, but its female lead disappoints

Desk job: Christopher Eccleston in ‘Antigone’Johan Persson

Although some contemporary plays — notably Posh and 13 — have accurately taken the temperature of the times, what about the timeless classics? Does Sophocles’s Antigone (dated about 441BC) have anything to say to us today? How can it be of our time too? As the National Theatre wheels out this play, with a cast led by Christopher Eccleston and Jodie Whittaker, onto its main stage, such questions hang in the air like the smoke from an ancient funeral pyre.

The third of the Theban plays, Antigone is a perfect tragedy: everyone behaves in the right way, but with fatal results. It's a true tragedy of irreconcilables. Creon, the ruler of Thebes, has decided that Polynices, who has died fighting his own brother in a civil war, has no right to be buried. Instead, his body must be left on the field of battle, a prey to scavenging dogs. On pain of death. This antagonises the dead man’s sisters, Antigone and Ismene.

Antigone, Ismene and Polynices are all the children of Oedipus

At the start of the play, they meet secretly. Antigone wants to bury her brother - it's a sacred duty - but Ismene is afraid that Creon will put them to death if they do. Antigone decides to do the right thing anyway, thus bringing on her head the sentence of being entombed in a cave while still alive. Despite the warnings of the blind prophet Teiresias, Creon doesn’t relent, with disastrous consequences which also involve Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s betrothed.

To get the full psychological and emotional impact of the situation, it helps to know that Antigone is also Creon’s niece, that Creon is Jocasta’s brother, and that Antigone, Ismene and Polynices are all the children of Oedipus. Yes, it’s a terrible tangle. What a family. But this is also a tale of moral duty, and — despite the title — more about Creon, who does the right thing and still gets stuffed, than about his niece.

Polly Findlay’s version starts off like a political thriller. The setting suggests the former Eastern bloc, a surveillance state which acts with the force of psychological repression, as well as suggesting other evil regimes from all over the world. It’s a bunker, a war room or a dictator’s nuclear-proof hideaway. The powerful design, by Soutra Gilmour, is hard in its concrete brutalism, implying a nasty West Wing, a dark episode of 24.

But although this production begins with an image that recalls the way that Obama and Clinton watched the killing of Bin Laden, the sense of the contemporary is hard to sustain. After all, this is a play about gods and fates. Christopher Eccleston understands this perfectly, dominating the stage by balancing the different public faces required of a politician, yet also convincing as a family man and an individual struggling with belief. He also cynically plays the terrorist card.

Much less satisfying is Jodie Whittaker’s Antigone (pictured above). From the start her speeches feel oddly thin, lacking body, weak in words. When she tells her uncle to kill her, her gesture suggests a casual shrug rather than noble self-sacrifice. Yet, despite this, her preparation for execution is gruesomely moving. Both the main leads get solid support from Annabel Scholey (Ismene), Luke Newberry (Haemon) and Jamie Ballard as a gnarled and deformed Teiresias.

In this production the lines of the chorus are split among a host of individual actors, who become a pack of political advisors, security experts, report writers, spin doctors, military experts, secretaries and functionaries. This works really well, and the ensemble holds the play together while propelling the action forward. I was less impressed by Don Taylor’s translation, originally written for television, which awkwardly mixes the slangy and the stately. Why didn’t the National commission a fresher version? It worked for One Man, Two Guvnors.

So while Findlay’s production looks great, with its pulsing music, haunting electrical storm and general atmosphere of fear, its contemporary flavour is diffused by including too many different historical associations, and never quite getting over the archaic qualities of the text. I really wish she’d gone the whole hog, and completely updated it. After all, Martin Crimp showed how this could be done effectively in his 2004 Cruel and Tender, a truly contemporary version of The Women of Trachis also by Sophocles. As it is, Eccleston rules okay in most of Antigone's scenes, Whittaker disappoints, but the play finally fails to say anything definite about the world today.


In general I agree with your reviewer. The production has a number of strengths, including its strong visual impact, but struggles to say anything specific about the modern world. We thought Jodie Whittaker was rather better than your review suggested, however.

I really can't agree that this production "fails to say anything definite about the world today." Creon is presented as the archetype of the extreme masculine, who immures (literally and metaphorically) the feminine and finds that to do so is to destroy both the joy of youth and woman herself. And his type of extreme masculinity is seen as the driving force of authoritarian politics, leaving no room for natural feeling. Timeless truths, stunningly evoked.

This was a great performance. That it was so successful is a tribute to Sophocles, and in spite of the poor translation of Don Taylor, inappropriate setting of Polly Findlay and bad casting decisions. Thank god I had read the original and seen a performance of this production that Sophocles would have recognized. Many of the faults issue from the same fundamental error: the play was distorted to render it "accessible" to a modern audience which cannot be trusted to draw out the contemporary relevance of the issues dealt with by Sophocles 2000 years ago. Sophocles wrote the play in 5th century BC Athens to explore the very human dilemma of reconciling our familial, religious and civic duties. This is why Sophocles is timeless in the same way Shakespeare is. The Director of this production was bent on distorting the dialogue and the setting so that it concerned itself only with conflict between Antigone's duty to observe the laws of the state and duties to her family alone. Sophocles was concerned with a much more nuanced set of potentially conflicting obligations than the simple state-versus-the individual conflict which trendy left wing directors directors are only capable of seeing. The audience is subjected to this "predigested" Sophocles in a condescending reworking of the original which it is assumed modern audiences are unable to cope with without the help of incongruous interpolations in the text and an entirely uniluminating and anachronistic stage set. In order to serve the interest of making this turgid commonplace masquerading as insight accessible to a theatre audience which could not presumably be left to understand the underlying complexities unaided, the action takes place in what looks like a high-tech office suite! Consequently we were subjected to the ludicrous incongruity of a dialogue that called upon the main characters to invoke the "Gods of Olympus and the heroes of the underworld" in what appeared for all the world to be the Channel 4 News Room! To further this misguided intention of making Sophocles "relevant", the script was peppered with absurdly anachronistic references to "neurotic" behaviour, "terrorists" and "dissidents". The most jarring of which include the two royal daughters of King Oedipus reared together in the same Theban palace for nearly two decades and neices to Creon having acquired quite different regional accents from each other: Jodie Wittaker's Antigone sounded like an early Gracie Fields and her sister, Ismene seemingly hailing from the Home Counties! Christopher Ecclestone's accent seemed to start somewhere just north of Watford and rapidly headed north to join Jodie Wittaker somewhere just south of Manchester. The whole point of the play is the ultimate impossibility of reconciling conflicting duties to multiple agencies. It is not for nothing that the Greeks said, "Count no man happy until he is dead"! To present the predicament as a straightforward conflict between family duty and loyalty to the state is to distort more than is illuminated.

I agree with the reviewer. For me, the work was illiterate. Using Greek tragedy to comment on contemporary politics and society can work if you let the audience work out for themselves what the significance might - or might not - be. Modern dress, a strange mixture of accents, Obama's office etc: these represented a total failure to face up to and work with the difference between Greek society and ours, to let the audience reach for the resonances in a society that believed in various ways in the supremacy of the gods and the inevitability of the fulfilment of the curse of Laius. The programme described this but the production foolishly fignored it. The performances suffered accordingly, hampered by problem casting, loss of the chorus's over-seeing of events etc etc.

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