Polly Findlay’s production of Sophocles’ tragedy is set in a Cold War-era bunker, where women in suits pass folders to uniformed army officers; functionaries bend over reel-to-reel tape players; and the man in charge, Creon (Christopher Eccleston), confers with flunkies behind brown-smoked glass. Then, even before dialogue starts, the ensemble freezes behind a television screen — clearly evoking the photo of President Obama and staff hearing news of Osama bin Laden’s death that went viral last year. As designed by Soutra Gilmour, this tableau is surely striking but hard to square with the 1970s setting; this emphasis on visual impact over clear interpretation or thematic continuity characterizes the production overall.
Jodie Whittaker plays the title role as an intense young woman who sticks to her principles against the hard-nosed pragmatism of the politician Creon. But because we never know exactly where and when we are, the enduring questions the play asks about the clash between personal responsibility and the exigencies of state power feel abstracted and distanced. It is only when Jamie Ballard appears as Teiresias, his scalp and face covered by scars, and warns Creon of the holy retribution soon to be rained down upon him, that things briefly galvanize — and that’s a full hour into the action.
Though we hear about it through occasional textual reference, the larger context for the story — that it is a continued playing out of the curse upon Antigone’s father, Oedipus, with all the history and horrors this brings with it — never quite feels present. Keeping a cool distance from the blood and guts of the story seems to be part of Findlay’s reading, or at least affects the way Creon is presented: Even as he confronts his own culpability in the death of his son and wife, Eccleston seems at an emotional remove from the action — his final action is to carelessly smear the blood from his hands onto a wall. Such an interpretation, however, runs against the text and rather negates the purpose of staging it in the first place.