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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Antigone
Olivier Theatre Summer 2012

This is as crisp, clear and well-acted a production of Sophocles' tragedy as you could ask for. If it is never particularly tragic, that's a price you may well be willing to pay. 

Director Polly Findlay and designer Soutra Gilmour set the play in a modern government HQ, an open plan office whose bureaucrats make up the Chorus, their speeches often broken up quite naturally into cross-table comments and water cooler chat. 

Creon is a hands-on king, working in his shirt sleeves at whichever desk is handy, and the only hint of a specific location lies in the references to women as second-class citizens. 

This works better than most directorial updatings, since it's a believable setting for the play's central conflict between the by-the-book King and Antigone's claims to a higher personal morality. (A reminder: he's forbidden the burial of her traitor brother, and she feels religion and decency require it.)

Even Don Taylor's sometimes overly modern-sounding adaptation ('He isn't bluffing') is less grating to the ear than it could be elsewhere. 

But the same earth-bound contemporary setting works against the play's repeated invocations of higher forces at work and a tragic sense of doom and inevitability – the one character who simply doesn't belong here is the blind prophet Teiresias – and other directorial decisions limit the play's complex resonances. 

Sophocles characteristically doesn't stack the deck on one side of the play's debate. Antigone is morally right but more than a bit of a zealot hungry for martyrdom, while Creon makes a strong case for the rule of law. 

But here there's no ambiguity. Jodie Whittaker's strong and perfectly sane Antigone is wholly in the right and Christopher Eccleston's Creon wholly unsympathetic. That's a perfectly legitimate reading of the play, though I miss some of the argue-about-it-afterwards complexity. 

Part of the problem, if it is one, lies in the casting. Christopher Eccleston is a strong actor, but not a warm one. He conveys Creon's confidence, authority and moral conviction powerfully, but gives us no room to care for the guy, so Antigone's combination of clear thinking and moral fervour wins us over, and Creon's pain in the last part of the play has little tragedy to it.

Few in the supporting cast register. Luke Newberry as Haemon shows us the son surprising himself a bit by standing up to his father but gaining in confidence and stature as he goes along, but Jamie Ballard can't overcome the sense that Teiresias has wandered in from some other play.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - Antigone - National Theatre 2012
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