In the production of Sophocles’ Antigone under review, Director Polly Findlay adds a prologue that becomes clear after a few minutes into the play. The curtain opens on a large, dark office where people are running around, passing messages and in the end huddle around a screen. Something terribly important is happening.
We know we are in Thebes and a civil war is raging. We know that Eteocles and Polyneices, the sons of the late King Oedipus are fighting on opposite sides and both are killed. Their uncle Creon is the winner, supported by Eteocles and Polyneices is on the losing side and is considered a traitor. This is background information and we are or should be aware of it but all we see is the commotion in the offices.
The play proper begins when Antigone and Ismene, Oedipus’ daughters, appear and discuss Creon’s orders that Eteocles be buried with honours but Polyneices the traitor be left unburied to be eaten by the dogs. Antigone has decided to defy her uncle’s edict and intends to follow higher laws and bury her brother.
This is a taut, dramatic and moving production done in modern dress. Antigone and Ismene appear before a dark wall of the revolving stage of the National Theatre in London and the rest of the play is set in the palace offices that we saw in the opening scene. Set Designer Soutra Gilmour and Lighting designer Mark Henderson emphasize darkness with only the area of the actors being lit.
Jodie Whittaker gives a powerful and passionate performance as Antigone. In a cockney accent she states her decision to bury her brother in uncompromising terms. The higher morality of the gods and the duty of a sister cannot be countermanded by a human being even if he is a king.
Christopher Eccleston’s Creon is confident, controlling, arrogant, a king as of right and a defender of the state. Like all tyrants, he is convinced that he is defending the state, he is working for the good of the people. He is also paranoid and demands absolute loyalty from all including family members. He dismisses Antigone and her sister as neurotics or lunatics. Eccleston gives an outstanding performance in the role.
Creon’s son Haemon (Luke Newberry) is the voice of reason trying to persuade his father to act sanely. He is unsuccessful with tragic results.
A far more compelling voice is provided by the blind prophet Tiresias. Jamie Ballard gives a superb performance. Tiresias looks unkempt with a hideous face and a head full of scales or scabs as he warns Creon of tragic consequences if he persists in his desire to destroy Antigone. Creon realizes his grotesque errors but if is too late.
Notably fine performances are given by Luke Norris as the frightened soldier who delivers the news of the illegal burial of Polyneices and Kobna Holdbrook-Smitth as the messenger who delivers the news of the fate of Antigone and Haemon.
Findlay judiciously introduces Creon’s wife Eurydice (Zoe Aldrich) and Haemon at the beginning of the play when we first see Creon. The three stand momentarily for a photo shot and we realize who they are. They both appear much later in the play but seeing them at the start is a shrewd move by the director.
The handling of the Chorus is always an issue in a production of Greek tragedy. Don Taylor in his version of the play allocates the lines of the Chorus among the officials working in the palace offices. They are in fact the Chorus. There is no chanting and the choral odes and speeches are spoken by various members without any awkwardness.
Findlay’s adroit directing gives us a cohesive and taut drama that flows superbly. Sophocles’ play becomes a modern parable about dictatorship and freedom that can be applied to current tyrannical regimes. There is no awkwardness with the presentation of the Chorus and we get an excellent production streamed to our home.
Antigone by Sophocles in a version by Don Taylor William, recorded at the National Theatre in 2012, is available from the National Theatre at www.ntathome.com.