Friday, 1 June 2012

Theatre review: Antigone

At Southwark Playhouse last year, Tom Littler's Middle East-set Antigone became unexpectedly topical when it coincided with the death of Osama bin Laden, and the unceremonious disposal of his body. This year, Polly Findlay's production at the National very consciously exploits the parallels, opening with a tableau that recreates the famous photo of President Obama and his staff watching the raid unfold. This, then, is Antigone as The West Wing, Soutra Gilmour's set creating the hectic offices of Government, as well as the back corridors where we first find Jodie Whittaker's Antigone and her sister Ismene (Annabel Scholey) discussing in hushed tones what's to be done with the remains of their brother Polyneices: Having led an army against his native Thebes, the new King Creon has decreed that his body is to be left unburied and unmourned as a warning to others. If Antigone defies her uncle's orders and buries her brother, the penalty is death. If she doesn't, she's disobeying the gods themselves.

Findlay's modernisation of the story is for the most part very effective, which Don Taylor's translation helps without overdoing the modern references - the only thing that jarred with the setting for me was the discussion of how women have no political rights, and that's largely because once you invoke that Obama photo you remember that Hillary Clinton was in it as well. But the conceit of turning the Chorus (plus Kobna Holdbrook-Smith's Messenger) into governmental staff is an effective one (though Alfred Enoch as one of the Chorus could really do with toning down the gesticulations.) The busy Luke Norris turns up as the unfortunate soldier tasked with delivering bad news to his king (he's fully-clothed but people with an interest may care to know that his uniform's had the sleeves ripped off it.) He also seems to be channeling Russell Tovey in his performance, which kind of works. Another interesting choice changes the blind seer from the ancient man we usually see - Jamie Ballard's Teiresias has instead been blinded by what look like horrific burns to the face.

The big draw for the production has been casting Christopher Eccleston as Creon and it proves to be the master-stroke, giving a fresh take on the character: Eccleston's Creon is much closer to a Shakespearean tragic anti-hero than the snarling monster you often see, a new ruler out of his depth and trying to exert his authority in a brutal way. He walks the walk as the ruthless dictator but when Teiresias's prophecies tell him he's made a mistake, it's his hesitation in backtracking that proves his tragic flaw and sees him pay with his own son Haemon (Luke Newberry.) On balance I think last year's production had the edge for me but it's hard not to make comparisons in one of the more frequently-performed Greek plays - I wish more than the usual handful got produced, but with the added topicality it's not surprising that Antigone is the popular one at the moment. And this production is definitely worth seeing, especially as it's in the Travelex £12 season. (But unfortunately the show doesn't look like it'll feature in the just-announced new National Theatre Live season, which will disappoint my American friend for whom Eccleston is "her" Doctor.)

Antigone by Sophocles in a version by Don Taylor is booking in repertory until the 21st of July at the National Theatre's Olivier.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.


  1. Yes, he is "my" doctor, and yes, it does disappoint. Maybe he'll find something else to do on stage by August 2013. There is still plenty of time, after all.

    PS ... Vicki says hi. She will definitely be with me next year. We can't wait to see you!

    1. It's odd really, as well as not having a cinema screening there's relatively few performances. I'd have thought between Eccleston and Whittaker there was enough to attract an audience. From what I've heard it sold well, anyway.