Review: Antigone at the National Theatre

Christopher Eccleston (Creon) and Jodie Whittaker (Antigone). Photo credit Johan Persson

Aka The Conversation with a touch of Poltergeist

In the programme for Sophocles’ Antigone at the National Theatre, there are many photos from the German film The Lives of Others, some of them at the background of the rehearsal room. It’s obvious that the production wears its references on its sleeve, but the films I was reminded of was Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (70’s paranoia) with a touch of Poltergeist (you ‘ll know what I mean if you see the production).

The setting is modern, but not 21st century. Most of the production plays out in the office headquarters of a military turned civil Authority with a distinct 70s feel. Cheap glass panels, dark passages, a photograph of the leader on the wall, office file trolleys. A small detail I loved was someone obsessively sharpening a pencil. But also there are the echoes of war: the glass of the light fixtures is broken. Some key scenes are played out at the back of this building, where the feel is much earthier and we get the sense of a different world: everyday people wanting to live everyday peaceful lives.

Much of the production, as directed by Polly Findlay, has a musical feel, with highly choreographed scenes and a marvellous pace to the language. One of the best scenes has Creon (Christopher Eccleston) and Antigone (Jodie Whittaker) arguing, exchanging lines fast and furiously, and the pace and rhythm would be a credit to any screwball comedy (and it works for a tragedy too, with ideas having a visceral, bloody – no pun intended – quality).

Creon and Antigone, as played by Eccleston and Whittaker, have more in common than they imagine. Both characters believe they make moral decisions, which makes compromise much more difficult. Whittaker’s desperation the closer she gets to her punishment has a beautiful inevitability, but also a touch of religious madness. Eccleston has the presence to fill the Olivier, and he can easily combine intelligence, leadership, a threat of violence and the domestic side of his character. With Jamie Ballard as Tiresias, who has the look of a chemical warfare victim and can make the strangest images come to life, the production has three great central performances. (One thing that surprised me: Creon is a much bigger role than Antigone: her character looms large but it’s only three key scenes. Creon on the other hand, especially in this production where, even if he is not in the scene, he is often in the background, is everywhere).

A minor objection: as with many National theatre productions, it suffers in some of the minor roles. Some young actors can’t match the more experienced ones and it shows (having said that, Jodie Whittaker is young, doesn’t have many theatre credits, but her performance is impeccable. With so much acting talent around, I am not sure why the minor roles should suffer).

A beating heart of a production,  doing justice to both the human passion and the moral questions of the play.

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