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Antigone

By • West End
WOS Rating:
Early in Polly Findlay’s superb new staging of Sophocles’ Antigone in the Olivier Theatre, the chorus, or office staff, of the new head of state, Creon, gather round a television to see what’s happening outside. Instantly we think of that photograph of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other White House officials glued to the small screen video link during the final raid on Osama bin Laden’s hide-out.

It’s just one way of registering the immediacy of the play, but there is no clumsy emphasis on modern application, nor is there any messing about with the late Don Taylor’s fine and muscular translation (which dates from a BBC television production of 1986).

Creon, played with understated, chilling authority and a Lancastrian accent by Christopher Eccleston, is keen to maintain control after a period of disastrous civil war.

His niece, Antigone, wants to bury her dead brother, the rebel Polynices, but Creon withholds permission. The other son of Oedipus, Eteocles, has been buried with full military honours. Antigone faces a death sentence in defying Creon’s order.

The status of the outlaw is likened to that of women generally. In the opening exchanges between Jodie Whittaker’s unblemished and impassioned Antigone and her sister Ismene (Annabel Scholey), it is clear that women are not only barred from political power, but from any discussion in their own future.

Ecclestone’s Creon becomes increasingly misogynist as the tricky situation develops tragically beyond his second disastrous edict: that no son of his – the fresh-faced Luke Newberry's Haemon – can marry a criminal. The full horror of the outcome is conveyed first in the witness of Jamie Ballard’s blind prophet Teiresias and then in a magnificent Messenger’s speech given full value by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.

Soutra Gilmour’s design for the first production in the tenth anniversary Travelex Tickets season provides grim, grey city walls that open to reveal a bustling seat of power in Creon’s office, where suited courtiers disappear behind glass panels and hover at desks full of papers and lamps, but not computers: this world is ever so slightly Mad Men, but without any 1950s glamour.

This chorus of policy-makers is drawn with increasing exasperation into the consequences, and each of them is neatly characterised, with sharp contributions from Paul Bentall, Martin Chamberlain and young blade Alfred Enoch (Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter movies).

“The key to human happiness is to nurture wisdom in your heart”, but of course this advice is always too late. This Antigone shows as clearly as any I’ve seen that catastrophe is most unimaginable to those who perpetrate it, unimaginable until the dead lie bundled up in rows like children in Syria. Eccleston’s Creon leaves his own city walls with a smear of blood, scraping his hand along the concrete like a scythe.


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