Considering that it was written 2400 years ago, Antigone seems amazingly modern. The plot is simple: Creon, the king of Thebes, has decreed that his nephew, Polynices, who has been killed fighting against him, should be left unburied and unmourned. Antigone, Polynices' sister, defies this decree to wash and care for her brother's body. Despite warnings from his son Haemon and the blind prophet Teiresias, Creon sentences Antigone to death for this crime - and suffers the consequences himself when his wife, Eurydice, and Haemon commit suicide.
In the intervening centuries, Sophocles' story has been adopted by many playwrights - including Anouilh and Brecht who used it as a basis for anti-Nazi plays - and even today there are countless examples of politicians who, following Creon's example, are ruined by their inflexibility and stubbornness.
However, despite these universally timeless themes, Declan Donnellan's production retains its Greek roots - the all male chorus sings and chants its responses to events (full marks to composer, Paddy Cunneen ) and Nick Ormerod's stark set provides a perfect backdrop. All very effective, though there are a few strange anomalies - why does Antigone wear glasses, for instance, and why are the chorus wearing what appear to be spats?
The title to the contrary, the central character of the play is really Creon; everything that happens is merely a reaction to his actions. Donnellan is well served by Jonathan Hyde who makes a magnificent king. He's particularly strong in the final scene, when confronted with the bodies of his wife and sonk, his anguished ululations hauntingly counterpointed by the chorus - a most dramatic moment.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast don't quite match Hyde. Tara Fitzgerald is implausible as Antigone. By setting out her stall against Creon, Antigone shows that she's as determined as he is. But this Antigone just doesn't look like the sort ready to take on authority. There's also a jarring note when Fitzgerald appears at the end as a messenger. It's a leap of faith in accepting Fitzgerald back on stage when we've just heard that Antigone has hanged herself. The justification given for this double-play is that, in Sophocles' time, only three actors performed all the parts, but surely, if Donnellan was really seeking authenticity, he would have used an all-male cast. On balance, it looks like an economy measure and cheapens the production.
In other parts, Zubin Varla is a dignified Haemon, although his appearance as the Guard (by way of the East End) grates somewhat, and Anna Calder-Marshall is a moving Eurydice but a less believable Teiresias.
Another niggling problem with this production is the translation, Donnellan's own. It jars too - based on this outing, no one would realise that Sophocles was one of the great lyric tragedians. Cliché follows cliché, the ultimate being when Eurydice declares that 'I have great experience of evil' as if filling out a job application for Murder Inc.
But despite these reservations, Antigone remains a powerful play and Jonathan Hyde's final anguish will stay long in the memory.