'Antigone'

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.

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.

Antigone

Olivier Theatre, London; 1,160 seats; £32 $49 top

Production

A Royal National Theater presentation of a play in one act by Sophocles, in a version by Don Taylor. Directed by Polly Findlay.

Crew

Set and costumes, Soutra Gilmour; lights, Mark Henderson; music and sound, Dan Jones; production manager, Mark Davies. Opened May 30, 2012, reviewed May 31. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Antigone - Jodie Whittaker
Ismene - Annabel Scholey
Creon - Christopher Eccleston
Haemon - Luke Newberry
Teiresias - Jamie Ballard
With: Zoe Aldrich, Paul Bentall, Martin Chamberlain, Jason Cheater, Stavros Demetraki, Jo Dockery, Paul Dodds, Craige Els, Alfred Enoch, Emily Glenister, Michael Grady-Hall, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Trevor Imani, Luke Norris, Reuben Pearce, Tim Samuels, Daniel Walsh, Ross Walton.

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