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Antigone at the National theatre Olivier

First Published 31 May 2012, Last Updated 30 May 2018

More than two thousand years after it was written, it is incredible how modern Sophocles’ Antigone feels in the hands of director Polly Findlay.

On reflection, that may be a depressing thought. Two millennia have passed and the tale of one man ruling by terror in a land where women are subservient to men doesn’t feel dated. It shocks and appals, questions and ponders but could believably have been written yesterday were it not for the meter of Don Taylor’s text, which is peppered with powerfully memorable lines.

Director Findlay has pulled the Greek tragedy into the modern era with Soutra Gilmour’s glass-officed set and suited civil servants adding a vague sense of the 70s.

Here King Creon, whom Cristopher Eccleston plays with the measured, unruffled calm of any modern leader, decrees that the cadaver of his treacherous nephew Polynices should be left to slowly rot and be scavenged upon as a lesson in obedience to the state.

Antigone, played by Jodie Whittaker, who bristles with brimming passion from her very first syllable, won’t see her brother mistreated so disobeys the king, leaving her uncle with a choice; uphold the letter of the law and punish his niece as an example or show mercy and lenience for a grieving sister but risk appearing weak.

While Whittaker’s emotion-led Antigone is more likeable than Eccleston’s Creon – no-one likes a calm peddler of terror, do they? – his initial arguments are undoubtedly compelling. Leaders must be strong and laws must be upheld. It is when the lengths he will go to and the nostril-assaulting whiff of sexism seep in that he begins to become distinctly unappealing.

Yet he is the character who changes most through Sophocles’ 90-minute consideration of state loyalty versus familial love and the rule of law versus moral codes.

Whittaker and Annabel Scholey as second sister Ismene understandably burst with anger, grief and fear for every second of their stage time. Though Luke Norris as a petrified soldier, Luke Newberry as Creon’s reasoning son, Jamie Ballard as disfigured soothsayer Teiresias and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as a messenger with the hardest tale to tell, are all impressive in their spotlighted speeches, it is still Eccleston’s Creon who stretches the furthest, those dammed, constricted emotions finally bursting beyond his control as he is left with blood on his hands… and on his clothes… and on the walls…

Antigone is playing as part of the Travelex £12 season, which offers almost half the tickets in the Olivier theatre for just £12.


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