Antigone endures because it is both direct and malleable. Its cycle of action – decree, defiance, retaliation, comeuppance – is simple enough to gain specificity without dilution or contortion. Sophocles’ play will resonate somehow, somewhere forever.
Antigone’s burial of her brother, which has been expressly forbidden, can stand for any and every act of principled defiance. Creon’s unwavering decree that she be punished is every instance of affronted retaliation, of leadership elevated above the people it represents.
Polly Findlay’s production manages all this, but the closer you look the more problematic it seems. From a distance, you get a gutsy political thriller with punch enough to grip and nous enough to avoid lazy extremes of good and bad, right and wrong. Christopher Eccleston’s Creon is an elected official whose self-righteous conviction has obliterated his sense of public duty. Three times, he is presented with the opportunity to make a U-turn and three times he dismisses advice. On one occasion, he’s seems to unchange his mind simply because someone questions him. Meanwhile, Jodie Whitacker’s Antigone is driven by her own interests, rather than the urge to publically protest and martyr herself to a cause.
Findlay sets out to present a modern political machine. She sets the action in Creon’s staff offices (impressively designed by Soutra Gilmour). Her chorus is of military advisors, pollsters and spin doctors, with the aim of always preserving the infallibility of the dear leader. Indeed, Findlay gives us the first chorus as a press release dictated. However that spin has spread to Creon’s head and he believes his own hype. It is telling that his son Haemon precedes his criticisms with cautious flattery: ‘It is not for me to say you are wrong.’
This Antigone comes via The West Wing. It is full of political intrigue and tactical power-play. There’s certainly urgency and momentum, despite three flatly directed acts that are suddenly enlivened by Jamie Ballard’s chilling and guttural Tiresias, his face melted into a minefield of welts and pustules, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s Messenger. The constant sense of bustle, of people with jobs to do, ferrying papers, chewing pens and chain smoking, ups the ante with a sense of unseen implications.
Nevertheless, beneath this archetypal political machine, is actually a collage effect. Eccleston’s Creon is a composite creation, first seen with huddled round a television screen with his security team, just like Obama, and later speechifying in the smooth stutter of Tony Blair. Indeed, the actor often seems more concerned with mimicry than emotional truth and thought processes. At the same time, his soldiers, staff and son all quiver before him, wary of his unchecked whims and unilateral decisions. Eccleston handles the part like Mr Potato Head, assembling attributes into a pick’n’mix whole. This Creon is an amalgamation of dictators and democrats.
Of course, there’s political oomph in that – and it’s the likes of Obama and Blair who come off worse than the Assads and Mubaraks – but these moments are broadly tokenistic. They don’t really add up to concrete critique and Findlay still wants to talk in general terms. Any bristle of recognition is an end in itself: neat, but signifying far less than the swirl of accompanying connotations. Findlay risks confusing her critique.
Above all else, Findlay is interested in entertaining with a cracking political thriller. She is, however, so in thrall to the televisual that she ends up referencing references, rather than the world itself. She works with dramatic tropes – Antigone and Ismene plotting while pinned to a concrete wall or interrogated while cuffed back to back – rather than seeking a genuine human truth. Perhaps that’s a good solution to Greek tragedy’s heightened style. Perhaps its an indictment of the media’s total pervasiveness.
Either way, Findlay always seems to be referencing a reference and, onstage, the dramatic world she creates tips into a distraction. The retro seventies aesthetic of cardigans and analogue adds nothing beyond an instagram shabby chic. It avoids the problem of modern technology, but it also makes the innate gender tensions – ruling men, subordinate women etc – seem a thing of the past.
If none of these loose threads snag, Findlay’s production looks impressive – punchy, clear, accessible and, above all, thrilling. But it just can’t stand up to scrutiny and its lack of specificity is fatal.