Of all the plays of the classical era, Antigone is one that perhaps resonates most with today’s society. The perennial conflict between individual freedom and the welfare of the state, between personal safety and moral duty, combine with issues that, in this era of seemingly endless, televised conflict – and where reports of human rights abuses are rarely too far from the headlines – have never felt more relevant. What, if anything, do you owe to your enemies? How do you balance the need to assert political power (and create and maintain a peaceful society) against the basic respect all human beings should enjoy from one another? While director Polly Findlay is occasionally heavy-handed in her handling of these themes, she has nevertheless crafted a production that feels contemporary and compelling.
The war in Thebes is over: the doomed children of a cursed king are dead, one brother deemed a hero, the other proclaimed a traitor. The new king, Creon (Christopher Eccleston), seeks to usher in a new era: one that puts the needs of the state first, and tolerates no dissent. To this end he decrees that the body of the traitorous Polynices should be left to rot, unburied, and any who defy the order will face the penalty of death. This is a proclamation which makes his men uneasy and disgusts Polynices’s sister, Antigone (Jodie Whittaker), who is determined that her brother should be given all the burial rites needed to see him into the next world, even if it costs her own life to make it so.
Soutra Gilmour’s set skilfully creates a modern context for the play: nestled in the shadow of the ruined city walls, she has created a space that is part army base camp, part Stasi office, with tables cluttered with tape recorders and paperwork, evidence carefully bagged and sealed. This setting is sometimes a little too explicit and emphatic, the production wearing its influences a little too heavily (an opening scene that recreates the tableau of Obama watching the capture of Osama Bin Laden, complete with the hand-over-the-mouth-in-horror gesture from a Hillary-a-like Eurydice, while admittedly clever, felt unnecessary and overstated). But generally the transposition works: Eccleston plays Creon as part bureaucrat, part politician, starting out with the admirable ambition of creating a rule that is about the country, not the man (an antidote to the time of striving brought about by the very personal failings of the fallen king Oedipus); but in his determination to assert himself and his rule, he becomes detached from the very people he is supposed to represent, dismissing their concerns and beliefs in favour of his own flawed judgement. Eccleston beautifully captures the almost casual arrogance of the man, and his disintegration as the repercussions of his decision start to unravel his carefully constructed façade of victory. His refusal to bury Polynices is both petty and hubristic; desecration of the dead – even by default – remains the most eternal of taboos, so there is no imaginative leap needed by a modern audience to understand the horror his pronouncement provokes, both in those personally affected (the dead man’s sisters) and in Creon’s own weary soldiers, who see in this a defiance of the rules of god(s) and man and a flagrant disregard for common decency that threaten the fragile peace before it is even established.
Contrasting to Ecclestone’s tightly wound politico, Whittaker’s Antigone is all heart stripped bare; passionate, defiant and at times almost febrile as she stands up for the tattered remnants of her devastated family. The actress uses her tiny frame well: she is manhandled, restrained and lifted about as if she were nothing by the burly soldiers who capture her, in a physical manifestation of her lack of power and import in the new world order. My one caveat is that I found her accent distracting. I’m a huge fan of both regional and working class accents in classical plays: used well they bring an immediacy, modernity and vibrancy to a text. I can see the reasoning behind it – it’s a much stated argument that if the classicists were alive and well today, they’d be writing soap operas, those modern crucibles of morality, so why shy away from actors with Coronation Street accents? Whittaker’s blunt burr is in sharp opposition to the modulated and careful tones of Eccleston’s Creon, just as her unflinching determination highlights his own lack of conviction, his resolution expediently dissolving once he realises his own family will be caught in the backlash. But Antigone is the daughter of a king: even in such a contemporary setting, it’s jarring that she sounds like she just stepped out of the Rover’s Return.
The supporting cast are universally solid, and though I found Luke Newberry’s Haemon a little overwrought, his performance meshes well with the idea of a romantic idealist who will sacrifice all to love; Annabel Scoley’s fearful Ismene provides a vivid contrast to her headstrong sister, but is given too little to do. As the messenger, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith skilfully manages to turn what is basically a huge piece of exposition into a moving and horrified speech, while chippy soldier Luke Norris perfectly encapsulates the cynical pragmatism of a fighter for whom one boss is just the same as another, since neither of them care about the men at the sharp end of the war.
Not everything in this strong production works as well as it might: Don Taylor’s script is functional and occasionally awkward, and not all the play’s themes successfully survive the translation to the contemporary setting; to modern eyes Creon’s turnabout after the warnings of the blind prophet Teiresias feels almost unconvincingly abrupt. But even taking this into account, this is a thought provoking and powerful production, anchored by two impressive central performances.