A review of the July 18, 2012 performance of 'Antigone' (Olivier Theatre, at the National Theatre), by Marianne
(this review contains spoilers)
|Christopher Eccleston as Creon, Jodie Whittaker as Antigone|
As you entered the theater you could already see a couple of actors filing papers, making coffee and chatting. They were moving about an office space consisting of three glass walled rooms, upstage, separated by two corridors; the set allowed characters to easily exit and enter. There were desks, chairs and various office paraphernalia downstage – the equipment was a mixture of pieces from different time periods, giving a feeling of being scrounged. There was no curtain. The design was simple, but very effective, with a bunker feel to it. It gave off an aura of being closed in. The costumes were an interesting mixture of civilian and military clothing, most men wore military boots with their dress shirts and ties. It showed a country in transition, that was not prosperous and balancing on the edge. A portrait of Creon (Christopher Eccleston) in his military uniform, scowling over the whole proceedings, was hanging in his office. The drum revolve, a specific feature of the Olivier (video here), was used effectively to bring the audience outside and inside the city walls. The walls themselves were replicas of the wood textured concrete of the National Theatre exterior.
When you first saw Creon he was wearing his military uniform and, together with members of his 'Cabinet' (the Chorus), watching the killing of an enemy on a monitor. Once the mission was completed, Creon changed into a business suit on stage, with some people assisting him – one of them being his wife Eurydice (Zoë Aldrich). The others took their places within the office space while Creon changed from General to peace time leader. This signified the end of the war and the start of his rule over Thebes. It also emphasized that Creon was a general who was used to commanding soldiers, and not a politician who paid attention to popularity polls and political correctness.
Near the beginning of the play, Creon made a point of addressing his Cabinet. He told them they were all there because he trusted them. I had the feeling that Creon really wanted to make a go of being a good leader. His very visible emotional struggles showed me that he wasn't interested in just dictating to the populace. It wasn't like he was asking for their opinion either, but he did try to get his Cabinet involved. They obviously worked with/for him during the civil war, so they knew what type of man he was, and yet they failed him when he needed them most. Too terrified, pandering or self-serving, they did not seem to know how to make him listen. It was disturbing how easily they turned against him when things started to fall apart. What agenda did they actually have and who were they ultimately serving?
Creon enacted a law that he saw as morally correct and reasonable. He did not want to honor the people who had opposed the ruling government in Thebes, and so denied them any sort of burial. He seemed to be blind to the fact that he was taking his revenge out on the dead, and that the gods might not find favor with that. No member of his Cabinet raised any objections to the new law, despite being also aware of the common citizens' disapproval. Had Creon surrounded himself with "Yes men" who were only comfortable voicing their objections in private and amongst themselves? It would prove to be his downfall.
Three people however tried to convince Creon that he needed to alter his position on burying the war dead. Only the blind seer Teiresias (Jamie Ballard) was able to reach Creon, but after going to extreme measures.
The first one was Antigone (Jodie Whittaker), Creon's niece, the fiancée of his son Haemon and the sister of Polyneices the traitor and Eteocles the hero who were both slain in the war. Antigone's defiance of Creon's law set the events of the play in motion. She seemed determined to commit "suicide by government" when she buried Polyneices making no attempt to hide it. Antigone loved her brother, and felt morally obligated to honor him with proper rites. She believed she served a higher authority than the state of Thebes. Unfortunately, when arrested and brought before Creon for sentencing, she was too busy shouting her righteousness to sit down with him and discuss her misgivings in a constructive way. And Creon could never have backed down to his niece, risking to appear weak, with everyone's eyes on him. I doubt any amount of intervention would have persuaded either party to yield, so convinced they were that each had the moral high ground in their argument. It was as if they were standing on opposite sides of a chasm and there was no middle ground.
Then there's Haemon (Luke Newberry), the son of Creon and Eurydice, engaged to Antigone. Haemon approached Creon in the worst possible way. Their conversation should never have taken place in public either. Haemon spoke to Creon sarcastically and was practically making fun of, and mocking, him. Haemon came off as a whiny boy, desperately in love with his fiancée, unable to communicate with his father on any level. Creon physically subdued Haemon in front of his Cabinet, leaving no doubt as to who the Alpha Male in the household was. This scene was one of the most effective and shocking, but completely believable. It was also a very terrifying example of how violent a man Creon could be.
Creon did not seem to be moved either by Antigone, the Soldier (Luke Norris) or Haemon. Only Teiresias moved Creon, and only after relating to him the prophecy which foretold of his son's death. Hearing that the gods would not look favorably on his edict to leave Polyneices unburied, Creon just glowered at the soothsayer for a long time and then scoffed at the prediction as being motivated by personal gain – the usual shortcoming he saw in people trying to engage with him. Creon had used Teiresias' services during the civil war, and one can assume that without his help Creon would not have survived the conflict and been in a position to rule Thebes. Teiresias' emotional retort to Creon's rejection was absolutely electric. You felt like you were watching a runaway train as it barreled towards the end of the track. Everything after this point happened in quick succession.
In Greek Tragedy deaths always occur off stage, and the production was true to this. I will state that just because you didn't witness the deaths of Antigone, Haemon and Eurydice, it didn't make them any less disturbing or tragic. The way the Messenger (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) delivered the details of Haemon's and Eurydice's fates was riveting. Creon's descent into despair was completely believable.
The play may be called 'Antigone' but it was really Creon's story. CE was on stage almost the entire time. If he wasn't speaking, he was in his office upstage. The strength of CE's performance was that he played Creon, the villain, not as a monster, but as a human being. As a man motivated not by selfish reasons, but by a belief in the sanctity of the state. It was obvious how much Creon loved his family and his country. The situation that had developed was simply beyond his ability to function in without help. As CE put it, Creon was "drowning" and desperately tried to hide that from everyone. A couple of times you could see him bending over with his head in his hands, obviously struggling with all that was happening to him. He was a leader who made a bad decision, and his inability to change his mind ended up costing him everything he held dear. Creon's grief was palpable, and that was all down to CE's ability to make the audience care about what happened to his character.
All the performances were full of energy even though (or perhaps because) the cast was coming off a fortnight vacation. CE and Jodie Whittaker gave absolutely crackling renditions. They were definitely on their game. I was seated in the back of the stalls and felt very involved in the action. CE had no trouble filling the space and drawing the audience into his acting. He had a distinct presence and commanded the stage.
Creon's soliloquy after bringing Haemon's body in was the emotional highlight of the play, and the final scene will stay with me a long time. It was like an exclamation point at the end of a powerful sentence. Creon's grief was heart wrenching. He left the bunker as the drum revolve rotated to bring the audience outside the city walls one last time. He was covered in his son's blood and was trying to wipe it off. Walking by the city wall, Creon dragged his hand along it leaving a bloody handprint as the play came to an end. Powerful stuff and all done in silence.
A very effective modern adaptation, and definitely a play you need to discuss after seeing it in order to excise the emotional turmoil you have just experienced.