Sophocles seems to be in the air this week, following the BFI Southbank screenings of Oedipus the King/Oedipus Tyrannus on Thursday night, and now this current production of Antigone, the third of the ‘Theban Trilogy’, at the National Theatre next door to the BFI.
This production of Antigone, directed by Polly Findlay, uses the same translation by Don Taylor which also featured in the 1986 BBC broadcast of the play (with Juliet Stevenson as Antigone and John Shrapnel as Creon). Here, in a modern dress production which opens with a scene reminiscent of the much-reproduced photograph of President Obama and his close followers watching the death of Osama Bin Laden, where Creon and his ‘court’ are summoned around a flickering television on which we suppose is the depiction of the final battle between the two sons of Oedipus and Jocasta.
These sons are proclaimed, one a hero, one a traitor, and the traitor will be left unburied and to pollute the atmosphere, much to the consternation of Antigone, who sees her correct course in obeying the decrees of the Gods only, and not the King, her uncle Creon. Creon sees the State and the Statesman as one, and any relaxation of authority to be weakness – even the urging of his son Haemon to listen to others and take counsel falls on deaf ears, and through the words of the Chorus (here arranged as in a press room) and the predictions of the soothsayer Teiresias, we see how even the mightiest of men can be wrong, and therefore fall.
Antigone is played by Jodie Whittaker, her Northern accent jarring with her pleas for being the last of the daughters of Kings – but she is very good, especially in the scene where she calls to the Gods to protect her against the cruelty of man. As Creon, Christopher Eccleston is full of misplaced pride – and in reflecting on this character as he appeared in the first Theban Play (Oedipus Rex), wanting a quiet life only until forced to become Regent for the small sons of Oedipus, when that mighty King fell from favour, it is fascinating to see him here making the same mistakes of pride that afflicted his brother-in-law. He sees himself as supreme and above the power of the Gods, he pre-empts them, and he will pay for it.
In modern dress the play still works within a setting rich with politics and corruption, and the use of glass rooms and mirrors allows characters to wander in and out of settings where they do not belong, and for the audience to see multiples of the same character as they soliloquise. At a spare ninety-five minutes, this production zips along, and although the storyline may seem unbelievable now, it feels relevant, as the playwright still has something to say after all these years.