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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
ANTIGONE
at the National (Olivier)

MODERN GREEK
By JOHN NATHAN

  Jodie Whitaker and Annabel Scholey/ Johan Persson

It was an image waiting to be appropriated. Remember that photograph of Obama, Hilary Clinton and a bevy of Whitehouse insiders gathered around a TV watching live video of Osama Bin Laden being assassinated? Well, here it is in Polly Findlay's production of Sophocles' play. Only instead of Obama we have Creon, and instead of Bin Laden, Creon and his generals are probably watching the death of Polynices, whose body Creon later decrees should be left unburied.

Sophocles' two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old warning against obstinate power needs no updating. Nor does Don Taylor's straightforward translation, which was originally written for television in 1987. But it is thrilling to see the modern world through the eyes of the ancient Greeks, and Soutra Gilmour's design focuses the perspective by setting the play not in the King of Thebes' court but in something like a nuclear bunker populated by nervous bureaucrats and soldiers – the chorus.

It's all very contemporary, even though for reasons perhaps best known to themselves, Findlay and her designer have added a quasi 1970s aesthetic. Though the suit worn by Christopher Eccleston's Creon is the design decision that is more telling than all the retro office equipment. This is the modern mantle of respectability worn by many a leader responsible for the most barbaric acts. And as Creon ignores repeated warnings about his decision – the most chilling of which comes from Teiresias (Jamie Ballard), the blind, and here horrifyingly scarred prophet – the mind turns to the obstinacy and barbarity of contemporary Creons, whose sole objective is also the preservation of power, even it means wreaking unimaginable suffering on the people they are meant to serve. The mind turns to Assad.

Though the play is about Creon, it takes its name from his niece. Jodie Whittaker's Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus who defies her uncle's edict to leave her brother's rotting body unburied, is a portrait of girlish modesty right down to the ankle socks. There is no hint of teenage rebellion. Rather this is a woman whose instincts have hitherto been to conform to authority. Only now is she forced into transgression. It's a promising premise for a performance. But it's not one that Whittaker takes full advantage of, opting to stay at roughly the same emotional pitch – one of steely defiance – throughout the play. Only her pretty blue summer dress gets progressively ragged.

And Eccleston also stops somewhere short of complete disintegration. When we finally see his Creon leave the stage, his hands slathered in the blood of his dead son and wife, he apparently wipes the blood as easily as he does his conscience. And then he just sort of saunters off. You can take it as a dramatically underpowered moment. Or you can take it as an observation about rulers who are incapable of holding themselves to account for the pain they cause.

 


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