Classically Inclined

June 21, 2012

Antigone at the National Theatre

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:31 am
Tags: , ,

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Sophocles’ Antigone. I didn’t have much to do with it as an undergrad – as far as I can remember, I spent more time with Euripides’ Hippolytus, Sophocles’ Electra and the Oresteia trilogy. Neither did it form a central element of my graduate training, although of course I read it for my comprehensive exams. But I came to wince whenever a student mentioned that they had read the Antigone in high school. In my admittedly limited experience, it inevitably meant that they had been taught it badly, at least as far as a classicist was concerned, in ways that prioritised presentist readings over appreciation for the ancient context.

This isn’t to say that the Antigone can’t still speak. In fact, the language, imagery and themes of the play remain strikingly powerful and relevant, as the current production at the National Theatre demonstrates. You have probably heard of it as the one with Christopher Eccleston as Creon, thus following David Tennant in bringing legions of Doctor Who fans to more traditional theatre, but the play itself is marvellous. It begins with a recreation of the famous White House situation room photograph released when the death of Osama bin Laden was announced. The question of how to treat the dead was, of course, critical to that incident as well, given the decision to bury bin Laden’s body at sea. The set is evocative of some administrative space in the Iraq Green Zone, all temporary desks and glass offices and typewriters and broken lampshades.

However, the contemporary setting does not distract from the language of the play, in a translation by Don Taylor – the odd ‘terrorist’ creeps in, but as a natural synonym for ‘enemy of the state’. Apparently this translation was made for a BBC production back in the early 1980s, and it’s aged very well indeed. There’s never a moment when the play feels as if it’s being forced to have contemporary relevance; the production allows the power of the original to speak for itself in modern clothes. Eccleston makes an excellent Creon – I had expected a sort of negative version of his Doctor Who, which would have been worth seeing in and of itself, but instead he pulled out acting stops I didn’t know he had to create a convincing picture of a man who’s sure he isn’t really a tyrant while everyone around him is quite sure he is. Jodie Whittaker’s Antigone was also gripping, managing to communicate her passion and single-mindedness with great effect; the scene where she was prepared to be taken to be buried alive was particularly haunting. The chorus are made up of the cast of a political back office – generals, secretaries, administrators – all the people who support Creon’s rule and are thus invested in obeying his judgement rather than speaking truth to power.

But I’m afraid this was not a complete success, and that is because while the play is allowed space to breathe, not enough effort goes into explaining the ancient features of the text. The first messenger speech, where the soldier arrives to report that person or persons unknown have buried Polynices against Creon’s orders, was played for laughs – the soldier was a comic squaddie type, whose reappearance with Antigone still kept up the humour. This meant that the dramatic tension of the moment didn’t quite get going – it felt like an attempt to defuse the scene instead of prioritise the cultural importance of burying the dead in the Greek world, which leads to the taboo that drives Sophocles’ plot. In modern England, we don’t quite have the same way of thinking about dead bodies – the First World War began to shift those social attitudes, with the first war dead who did not come back in one piece, and the increase of bombing as a martial technique means we have a category of dead who cannot be given a burial as understood by the Greeks.  But this Antigone doesn’t try to take us back to that mindset until the appearance of the prophet Teiresias, played electrifyingly by Jamie Ballard, makes the horrific consequences of the action clear – consequences which feel utterly alien to the play as we have experienced it, because there has been no acknowledgement of the direct influence of the supernatural until suddenly it is thrust upon us. The audience has no forewarning of the horror of Creon’s actions, whereas the tension of his hubris really should lie underneath the play’s structure throughout.

What this means is that some excellent acting left this particular audience member feeling, as Aristotle might have put it, as if the necessary catharsis had not been achieved. It was still worth seeing, as it held the audience’s attention for the full ninety minutes and is a gripping piece of theatre. This production highlights the way that the best modern productions let ancient tragedy speak without getting in their way, but sadly the individually excellent pieces did not quite cohere into a unified excellent whole.



  1. Really interesting insights. I also felt that while the translation is excellent, the play didn’t involve me emotionally to the degree that other productions have (though I thought the last messenger speech was spine-tingling). Also agree about the issue with laughter defusing the tension – I found that part of the problem, at least when I went, was that the audience were looking for laughs and prepared to find almost anything funny – ‘these women are neurotic’ got a big laugh, which it didn’t necessarily ask for. I particularly liked the way that the visitation of the plague was done through the Newton’s Cradle starting by itself, lightbulbs blowing, machines spewing out paper – a brilliant technological update.

    Comment by annareeve — June 21, 2012 @ 10:19 am | Reply

    • I think the production decided to play the misogyny for laughs, which I can understand as an approach to difficult material, but it did add to that slightly misplaced humour.

      I also thought the set was used very imaginatively, particularly the exploding machines and the Newton’s Cradle – it was one of the ways that I thought that the modern setting work very well.

      Comment by lizgloyn — June 22, 2012 @ 8:37 pm | Reply

  2. Thank you very much for your extremely interesting and illuminating review. As a relative newcomer to the classics I have to admit that I enjoyed the performance immensely last Saturday but didn’t pick up on the various points you mention ~ so this has greatly added to and enhanced the experience for me and given me plenty to think about. Thank you.

    Comment by barkingmaddy — June 21, 2012 @ 11:36 am | Reply

    • You are very welcome – glad you enjoyed the post!

      Comment by lizgloyn — June 22, 2012 @ 8:38 pm | Reply

  3. I saw this a few weeks ago, but didn’t write it up, largely because it left me mostly unmoved. It was not terrible, but neither was it, for me, a great piece of theatre, and I thought it wore it’s contemporary resonances (like the Obama/Bin Laden allusion) a little too obviously.

    The comedy soldier is inherent in Taylor’s text (which I see is being correctly referred to as a version rather than a translation – Taylor had no Greek). That was written for a BBC broadcast in 1986 (ignore online sources which suggest that it was 1984 – they’re wrong), which you can find on YouTube. I think (despite the celebrity choruses) it still stands up well, and I don’t think Eccleston’s Creon is in the same class as John Shrapnel’s.

    Laura Swift’s programme notes are very good, though, in particular highlighting that the presentist reading, which sees Antigone as a noble soul standing up against tyranny, might well have been rejected by an Athenian audience, who would have seen someone whose loyalty to family superseded her loyalty to the polis, precisely the sort of person oligarchic conspiracies were made of.

    Comment by tonykeen46 — June 21, 2012 @ 2:13 pm | Reply

    • An earlier version of this post did refer to the text as a version rather than a translation – I don’t know when that changed, so thanks for pointing it out.

      I think, given my experience of problematic contemporary readings, this one was so surprisingly successful that I actually enjoyed it!

      I do need to sit down and work through the programme notes properly (one thing I haven’t got around to over the week) – but you’re absolutely right that Antigone’s actions too carry social baggage as weighty as Creon’s. The question is how you make a modern audience see all of those contending issues as the characters try to battle through them, and which ones you choose to prioritise.

      Comment by lizgloyn — June 22, 2012 @ 8:59 pm | Reply

  4. It would be nice to have a production reflecting the intent of Sophocles and not the shrill line leading from Anouilh. The BBC version of the ’80s distorted Creon from the opening and destroys the philosophic thrust of the trilogy. Without a thorough understanding of “… Colonnus”, probably to the Greeks the most important of the plays, the trilogy is incomprehensible except as the screeds of those who would debase the ideas in play in order to introduce to the works the influence of Sam Peckinpaugh. . …. What it is, is a wrenching conflict between those who are caught in the classic tug of war between god and man. They are all good people, not flawed and reprehensible as all current work insists. The conflict is cosmic, universal, inescapable. That is the tragedy. (If you need a starting point it is the god’s need to punish Oedipus’ father, and the cascade of pain and tragedy that must follow. And it provides the understanding that somewhere in time the successively punished will be redeemed because their transgressions are inexorable results of things of the past over which they had no control … Current interpretations play to the exploitive and lose the substance. …. Blood and guts win audiences. Real insight does not sell. Even at the National Theatre.

    Comment by Mike Goldstein — June 29, 2012 @ 12:11 am | Reply

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