Theatre, West End
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© Johan Persson

Twenty-nine-year-old director Polly Findlay makes her Olivier debut with impressive assurance, sweeping a 2,500 year old tragedy (Sophocles's 'Antigone') and a 48-year-old screen star (Christopher Eccleston) into her bold modernisation of an ancient parable of state arrogance. To do so, she has to sweep some of 'Antigone's original context under the carpet, in a move that comes back to trouble this gripping 90-minute production in its final third.

Here, Thebes is a paranoid city evoking several eras of the post-WW2 West. Soutra Gilmour's beige and perspex set and Dan Jones's ticking clock sound-design are brilliant homages to classic Cold War espionage thrillers like 'The Manchurian Candidate'; the freewheeling naturalism of the chorus, who take on the role of political leader Creon's backroom staff, brings something of 'The West Wing'; and the wordless first scene in which Eccleston's Creon watches the battle between brothers Eteocles and Polynices on a monitor audaciously references the photo of Obama, Clinton et al viewing the demise of Bin Laden.

The keynote is Eccleston's channelling of Tony Blair. It's not an impersonation, but his precise, repetitive diction, mannered body language, cool unflappability and, above all, unshakeable belief in the rightness of his deeply unpopular cause – in this case executing his niece Antigone for defying the law by burying her traitorous brother Polynices – unerringly invokes one man's slippery spirit. It is a superb portrait and critique of the scariest sort of politician: one actually driven by ideology.

The blaze of feeling that Jodie Whittaker's bluff northern Antigone brings to Thebes' claustrophobic halls of power is thrilling, even if she gets comparatively little stage-time. That's largely because she doesn't get many lines from Sophocles or Don Taylor's terse, tough 1986 BBC translation. But, like several elements of the original play, her motives and personality feel drowned out by Findlay's vision.

This is exemplified by Jamie Ballard's blind prophet Teiresias, whose tangible mystical powers and daft prosthetic-enhanced appearance are completely at odds with the naturalistic surroundings. It's an interesting portrayal which makes almost no sense here.

The production teeters after Teiresias's late introduction, flailing to regain context. But it pulls it back for the devastating final scene, in which, after a triple tragedy, Creon's spirit is finally broken – not in spite of his unshakeable faith, but because of it.

By: Andrzej Lukowski


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I'm afraid i have to agree with previous reviews. Disappointing and weak. The worst production of a Greek tragedy I have ever seen.

This production was a terrible disappointment. As the reviews were mixed I hoped for the best. and I'm not hostile to the idea of modern-dress Sophocles. Contrary to the Time Out critic I did not find it gripping. To be blunt it was rather boring and certainly not the devastating experience it can be. I recall seeing a couple of excellent TV productions many years ago and a splendid production of all three of Sophocles' Theban Plays at the Barbican in the early 1990s translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker. The Antigone of Jodie Whittaker was disappointing. Her first scene was marred by my being unable to hear all that she said and the performance didn't get much better. Aren't actors taught to project their voices these days? Or is it that they do so much TV and film work they've become dependent on on microphones? Christopher Eccleston's Creon wa hardly an authoritative figure, emerging as a rather petulant, none too bright middle manager wh'd been promoted beyond his level of competence. None of the actors really shone apart from Jamie Ballard as Tiresias but his efforts were marred by makeup more suitable for an episode of Star Trek. Misguidedly the Chorus was spoken by individual members of the cast. As a consequence it went for nothing. The most imaginative Chorus I've seen was in the Barbican production mentioned above. There they chanted their lines whilst dancing and beating the stage rhythmically with wooden staves. It sounds crazy but it was riveting. The production was over-fussy with the cast scurrying around the stage in lots of pointless activity that neither added to the drama nor advanced the plot in any meaningful way. It was extremely irritating. I didn't much care for the translation either. To substitute "terrorist" for "traitor", presumably to give the play a contemporary resonance, was stupid. Sophocles did know what hewas doing. In fact a couple of days after seeing this production I pulled my old Penguin Classics edition of "The Theban Plays" off the shelf and read Antigone. There was more drama and tension on the written page than ever there was in this production. What a missed opportunity!

Er, yes, this is tragic. Epically awful. I'm afraid that the director has totally failed to get to grips with the challenge of this play. The result is lots of static, remote, arms-folded hysterical running through the lines like they're dragging the actors at an uncontrolable and unvaried pace. There's no subtlety, variation or meaning and on several occasions when the whole audience laughed (in places you're not supposed to laugh) you could see that everyone was grateful to briefly relieve the pain. Personally I laughed a lot, but tried to be as quiet as I could. The key moments were robbed if their significance, the whole was excruciating. But my favourite bit was imagining the backstage conversation that started with the director saying. "we need something more here" and Christopher Eccleston (don't judge him on this performance alone) replying "don't worry, I'm still mates with the make-up bloke from Dr Who."

Oh dear. Let's get this out of the way first - the script was dreadful, woefully inadequate for its updated staging. The chorus lines ahd clearly been randomly assigned to the small parts, who would inexplicably swing from fawning toadies to loudly castigating the king. Creon has a ridiculous number of lines, declaiming at length every five minutes on his favourite subject: the sanctity of the state. The problem is, the updated staging invalidated Creon's position fairly early on, which ensured that the audience felt no sympathy for him throughout, which defeats the point somewhat. Creon is presented as a dictator, endlessly harping on about the importance of respecting the law. As an ancient king, that works - the king is the physical embodiment of the state, and anyone defying his laws is challenging his authority to be king. As a modern dictator, it's bewildering. Here is where the second major problem crops up: even with a weak script, strong direction could have pulled it through. Unfortunately, the play is all one note. The energy levels are all wrong. Creon starts off fairly convivial, but quickly becomes menacing by proxy. The actors seemed to remember mid-way through a speech that there were supposed to be out of breath, or hurt, and start panting. Creon is rapidly wired up to max volume and max rage, and kept there until the end. Meanwhile, parts with no lines (did Eurydice get a single line before being told of her son's death?) walk on, get very high energy very quickly, and leave just as quickly. By the end, with everyone blood-spattered, the actors - and the audience, who had been shifting uncomfortably in their seats for some time - were exhausted. There were some good points. Jodie Whittaker gave a sympathetic performance as Antigone, and her few speeches were well delivered and thoughtful. Teiresias was very interesting, and his physical presence impressive. Chistopher Ecclestone, although woefully mis-used and mis-directed, delivered some lovely moments of pathos, particularly with his scene with Teiresias and his final exit, walking wearily around the stage, smeared with blood. The set itself was nicely done, the clear lines of the office nicely referencing a temple. Ultimately, though, this didn't save the play from feeling overly-long at a mere 1hr 40mins (I looked at my watch several times), and inspiring fits of the giggles every time Creon was forced, yet again, to declaim to the back of the auditorium. When your audience doesn't care about the fate of any of the characters, there is clearly something going very wrong. Not recommended.