Antigone, National Theatre, NT, May 2012Posted on 30 May 2012
The story behind this play is that before he died, Oedipus cursed his sons, and they ended up killing one another in a battle for Thebes. The city is now ruled by Creon, brother to Oedipus’s mother/wife Jocasta.
Creon has commanded that one of the two dead brothers — he who ruled the city and exiled his brother — be honoured, while the other lies outside the city walls to be devoured by carrion. Their sisters, Antigone and Ismene appear at the start of Sophocles’ Antigone, outside the walls, with Antigone asking her sister’s support in giving her brother a burial. This yields a clash between familial obligations and the rule of the State, represented by Creon. The theme is timeless, and in Polly Findlay’s production it is staged in modern dress.
The set, with Creon’s office at its centre and various desks in a large common area to the front, can be rotated to show the outside of the city walls. Good designs by Soutra Gilmour, darkly lit by Mark Henderson and with occasional threatening musical crescendos by Dan Jones. But what of the acting?
Jodie Whittaker was a strongly sympathetic Antigone, and Luke Newberry as Creon’s son Haemon, was superb at respectfully, and then less respectfully, countering his father’s arguments. He loves Antigone, is betrothed to her, and the two of them were the heroes, defying the tyrant’s power, but I would have preferred a more nuanced treatment by the director. There are serious issues here about the right of the individual to challenge the power of the state, and Sophocles has given eloquent arguments to both sides.
Christopher Eccleston played Creon as a harsh tyrant, looking like a cross between Vladimir Putin of Russia and Bashir Assad of Syria. Perhaps that was the intention, but his downfall lies not in his initial decision to deny burial to one brother but his stiff-necked refusal to ignore well-meaning advice. As it was he looked like a loser from the start, his eloquence turning to rants. When Jamie Ballard as the blind seer Teiresias enters, he too ends up ranting, which rather spoils the effect. Towards the end, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith held the stage brilliantly as the messenger, delivering news of Antigone’s death and Creon’s final clash with his son.
The mixture of accents, some of which sounded unnatural, did not help, but Antigone is always worth seeing, and I liked the sets, costumes, music and lighting.
Performances continue until July 21 — for details click here.