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Antigone review at Olivier National Theatre London

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The head of state and assorted generals and apparatchiks cluster round a screen much as Obama and his staff did to watch the death of Osama bin Laden. But Creon and his household are in a dismal bunker, a war HQ with all the charm and comfort of eastern Europe in the 1970s.

The story of Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus who defied her uncle, Creon, to bury her defeated brother Polynices against the decree of the state, is familiar both in itself and for its cultural impact. Often revived, discussed by philosophers including Hegel and referenced by artists – among them Seamus Heaney and Athol Fugard, whose prison characters in The Island acted it out – Antigone speaks directly to us. This is in no small part because the gods have less of a presence than they do in other Greek tragedies; the faults and responsibilities of the characters are their own. More importantly, the claims of family loyalty against community, of personal conscience against the requirements of the state, of natural law against agreed justice, are crystallised in Antigone’s stand. It goes without saying that these ideas are in daily contention around the world.

Antigone might be a freedom fighter or a problematic rebel, a heroine or a threat to order. Creon might be a power-hungry autocrat or a leader faced with the need to establish peace in Thebes after the chaos of civil war. Polly Findlay’s production explores these ambiguities unflinchingly. The period shift strips away distancing ritual without providing insistent modern parallels. Soutra Gilmour’s set is horribly accurate, with its moth-eaten carpet, Anglepoise lamps and reel-to-reel tape recorders.

Christopher Eccleston’s Creon is an upright soldier, convinced that he must make an example of Antigone for the greater good and refusing to listen to pleas from his son, Haemon, who wishes to marry her. He is brutal in condemning Antigone to be executed by being buried alive and, in Findlay’s version, exercising control of his son (a slight Luke Newberry) by physical bullying, but he never entirely loses his humanity. His lesson is hard-learned: when his son and wife both kill themselves, he knows he is to blame. A bloodied Eccleston shows him to be broken and distracted.

Jodie Whittaker, making her NT debut as Antigone, is both admirably steadfast and an irritating teenager. Schoolgirlish in her ankle socks and pony tail, she is as obsessive as Creon: nothing will shift her.

Don Taylor’s well-established version of the text has a pleasing clarity. The Chorus – here soldiers and bureaucrats in Creon’s office – speak lines as individuals, building a sense of unity but maintaining their separate characterisation. Among the named characters, Jamie Ballard’s horribly diseased truth-telling seer Teiresias, Annabel Scholey’s sisterly Ismene and Luke Norris as the frightened soldier who brings the news of Antigone’s defiance all give sterling support. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is outstandingly good as the messenger with the worst news to tell.

This production marks the tenth anniversary of the NT’s laudable Travelex sponsorship scheme. If it is not exactly celebratory, it’s a good example of serious, high-quality theatre available at a realistic price.

Production Information

Olivier, National Theatre, London, May 23-July 21

Author
Sophocles, Don Taylor (adaptation)
Director
Polly Findlay
Producer
National Theatre
Cast includes
Jodie Whittaker, Christopher Eccleston, Annabel Scholey, Luke Newberry, Jamie Ballard, Zoe Aldrich, Luke Norris, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith
Running time
1hr 35mins
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