Thebes has been ravaged by civil war and King Creon has ruled that no one is to bury Antigone’s brother, the ‘traitor’ Polynices. Driven by her overriding familial love and the belief that her uncle’s edict is immoral, unjust and against the laws of the gods, Antigone must disobey Creon’s orders and bury her brother. Even if doing so will end her life.
In Don Taylor’s version of Sophocles’s famed tale, we see the Theban Royal Family in a bleak bunker seated amongst a chorus of generals and civil servants. Here King Creon rules from a glass partitioned office, surrounded by a multitude of desks, table lamps and dated electronic equipment. Taylor’s script focuses on “the havoc man can bring upon man” but the real stars in this production are the designers, who place you beautifully in the atmospheric world of Thebes.
Soutra Gilmour’s set is striking as you enter the Olivier’s auditorium and creates a detailed space that feels lived in and used. Every instrument and piece of furniture seems to make perfect sense on stage, with nothing appearing extraneous or wanting. Gimour’s set is supported by the strong, and fairly simple, lighting design of Mark Henderson, which allows the audience to focus their attention whilst easily being aware what is taking place across the stage. Dan Jones finishes this sumptuous design with sound and music that not only places you in war-ridden Thebes but seems to connect on a very base and primal level.
Taylor’s text creates a nice balance between the archaic language expected from Antigone and a more colloquial interpretation. However, this melding of ideas seems to create difficulty for some of the actors encountering the text, as several performances from the chorus appeared overly heightened whilst others were simpler and understated. Whilst the shapes and ideas of the piece were very clear, this lack of unifying playing style felt at odds with the piece and other decisions, and I found myself wishing that this had been solved by Polly Findlay’s direction.
Jodie Whitaker brings a raw edge and tenacity to Antigone that is often lacking in this character. However, Whitaker’s performance stays on one level and never quite spills over with the passion that is required of her – often causing her to underplay the more dramatic moments. I also found Christopher Ecclestone’s Creon to be much the same, something which meant that a rather lengthy dualogue between the two never seemed to reach its climax.
There are strong performances from Luke Norris (who brings some needed comedy and upward energy as Soldier), Luke Newberry (whose light and juvenile qualities create a rather beautiful portrayal of Haemon), Michael Grady-Hall (Chorus) and Zoe Aldrich as Eurydice, who may not feature heavily in the production but gives a beautifully sincere and empathetic performance.
Antigone is a difficult story to bring to life as modern audiences are aware not only of the story but of many different versions that are in the public consciousness. Taylor creates something interesting with this idea and Polly Findlay has crafted an intelligent and atmospheric piece with his text that stirs emotion in the audience. More could have been done to unify this piece but Antigone showcases a strong creative team and some clear performances.
Antigone is playing at the National Theatre until 21 July. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.