It’s significant how plays often have the power to provoke recollections both important and otherwise. My choice of play yesterday prompted a memory – not a hugely important one, I grant you, but a memory none the less. You know how when you’re young and you see a word written down that you don’t necessarily pronounce it correctly? I recall it was only when Thunderbirds hit the TV screens in the mid-1960s that I realised that the name I thought had two syllables Penny-lope was actually articulated as four Pen-el-o-pee. And it was only when it was announced in college that we would be studying a play called An-tig-o-knee that I realised that it wasn’t Anti-gone. At least I didn’t think it was by some Greek bloke called Sop-ho-cleese.
This production of Antigone is part of the archive section of National Theatre At Home and was first seen on stage in 2012. Played in modern dress and with a sense of political turmoil at its heart it still seems highly relevant nearly ten years later but with that timelessness of inevitable tragedy which underpins this ancient Greek drama. Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus who stands up to the new king of Thebes, Creon who is also her uncle. The conflict point is the treatment meted out to the bodies of her brothers killed in battle. One is buried with honours, the other is left to publicly rot. The young woman defies the new ruler, pays due homage to the dead and is walled up in a cave for her pains. Other deaths and a great deal of sorrow inevitably occur – well, it is a Greek tragedy!
This version by writer Don Taylor and director Polly Findlay is muscular, direct and runs like a high powered train along its tracks and although it is the third part of Sophocle’s Theban trilogy it does not rely over heavily on familiarity with the first two plays in the sequence. The background is swiftly set out in a secretive meeting between Antigone and her sister Ismene (three syllables) and the moral arguments for the former’s intended deeds are carefully set out. Most of the action then takes place in a bunkered war room: Soutra Gilmour’s well realised set almost looks like an extension of the Olivier auditorium’s brutalist concrete architecture. The Chorus is formulated as the people who work there scurrying around in the background and occasionally stopping to comment on the action – there’s a very West Wing vibe to proceedings. Creon as high commander has a glass partitoned office at the back from where he can control everything.
Except that he cannot control his niece and takes desperate measures to shut her protests down. Creon is not so much a villain as a man trying to do what he thinks is right but getting it all wrong and it costs him in terms of his own wife and child. Christopher Eccleston brings subtlety to the role and even at times a grim humour. His moral certainty is possibly the most frightening thing about him. This is matched by Jodie Whittaker’s steely take on the heroine who is equally morally assured. Even when questioned individually by his own son and her own sister, neither one refuses to budge and therein lies the tragedy; Ecclestone/Whittaker are adept at bringing this to the fore. They are supported by a strong body of actors with particular standouts being Luke Newberry’s passionate Haemon, Luke Norris’s sardonic soldier and the incarnation of blind prophet Teiresias by Jamie Ballard. The ten strong chorus manage to both individualise their characters but present them as a cohesive unit; it was interesting to see a young Alfred Enoch as one of them.
As might be expected with a National production the staging is fluid and dynamic but doesn’t get in the way of the simplicity and inevitability of the story. Indeed the production’s key strength lies in the clarity of its story telling. I’d forgotten how little stage time is actually given to the titular character who disappears off stage for the last third of the play even if her presence is still felt. Perhaps the tragedy should really have been called Creon as, certainly in this production, it is the trajectory of his downfall which forms the central focus. Ad at least, as I have seen before, the urge to pronounce his name Cray-on was resisted.
Antigone is available on National Theatre At Home – click here
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