Antigone at the National Theatre

Antigone by Sophocles in a version by Don Taylor, directed by Polly Findlay. National Theatre, 2 June 2012

Antigone, cast homage to Obama et al. witnessing Bin Laden's deathThe stage resembles a 1980s European Cold War office, with further offices upstage partitioned by glass walls and doors. There is a portrait in the back of Creon’s office, but, despite the generally excellent sightlines in the Olivier Theatre, the identity of the portrait eluded me from my position. I guessed it was Creon himself, thus Christopher Eccleston, but my friend Tom suggested that David Tennant would be a more apt candidate. Eccleston’s fame is a principal selling point of this production, though Eccleston has excluded any mention of Dr Who, and his other big-money sci-fi jobs from his biography in the programme. It seems an unnecessary, even nervous, move, especially as he plays Creon with the same earnestness bordering on petulance that he dependably brings to all his roles. Book Eccleston, and you invariably get Eccleston. If, like me, you have warmed to his style, then this is no problem. Can he bring a vulnerability and righteousness to Creon, tyrant of Thebes who forbids the burial of Polynices, brother of Antigone and Ismene?

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011.

A brief prologue recreates the photograph of Obama, Hillary Clinton, et al. monitoring the progress of the location and killing of Osama bin Laden. Striking an image it may be, but it is a little gratuitous perhaps: how seriously are we expected to draw parallels? Is Polynices a bin Laden figure to Creon? Polynices is denied burial for his attack on the city; bin Laden was said to have been given an appropriate burial. Is the parallel of Creon and Obama intended to cast Creon in a positive light? To give us some investment to sympathise with this unsympathetic character?

On stage, the assembled prologue group disperses into choreographed office bustle: the play’s Chorus is composed of functionaries, speaking singly. Eccleston’s Creon is even more the Blairite managerial ruler than that I’d seen in Oedipus at Colonus at Theatro Technis in January. All these contemporary moves may bring the drama closer to home, but it also keeps the tone decidedly flat. Creon’s early encounter with his son Haemon, betrothed to the rebel Antigone is a fine example of this: the stakes could not have felt lower, as if they were discussing staplers. It finally came alive for me with the entrance of Teiresias (Jamie Ballard): lights flared and flickered before his arrival, perhaps indicating Antigone’s death, but certainly heralding the arrival of something beyond the quotidian, even the activity of the numinous. It is a problem many modern productions have: how to present divinity – which is so crucial to understanding of Greek tragedy – to a secular audience. Famously, the conflict in Antigone is between the heroine’s devotion to her brother, and the ruler’s unwavering adherance to the dictates of the state. But the gods are operating in each corner: the unburied Polynices is an abhorrant religious pollution, yet as his treacherous body would pollute the ground too. Without an understanding of the religious importance of the polis, the city state, Creon is no more than a tyrant. On her highly entertaining and politically engaged blog, Edith Hall has reviewed this production and judges that Creon is not portrayed tyrannically enough! I am uneasy about the idea that explicitly linking tyranny in Thebes with – in Hall’s example – present tyranny and massacre in Syria would help the audience challenge any assumptions; rather than simply reinforcing comfortable liberal view that massacres are bad. That said, I would join her call for a more coherent understanding of the political urgency that lies in these ancient texts. Before I read Hall’s blog, I had suggested that, for the audience to understand Creon, the state that he defends should be presented less as an Obamo-Blairite governmental consultancy, and more akin to a state structure that is worth defending. The welfare state? The NHS? Creon as overworked casualty doctor? Well, that’s an idea that needs a lot of work, but it would open a space for a political mechanism worth defending, and could fruitfully complicate the argument of the play.

Politically disengaged it may be, but we do witness some effective checking-off against Aristotle’s expectations for tragedy, with harmartia, anagnoresis, and peripeteia in evidence in the character of Creon. With Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice dead at the end of the play, Creon is utterly destroyed – a portrait of desolation. At the close, Eccleston wiped his bloody hand on the wall of the rotating set: a petulant move that seemed somehow jarring with Creon’s present state, but completely in Eccleston’s character.

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