It’s not uncommon for performers to be miscast, as at least two of the four principals are in the new West End revival of “Antigone,” adapted and directed by Declan Donnellan. But I can’t quickly remembera production being as physically mismatched to its venue as this spare, supposedly elemental staging is to the decorative jewel box that is the Old Vic.
Down the road at the Young Vic, Nick Ormerod’s circular wooden set would prove a snug fit within an unadorned auditorium to match. (It would also position the audience above the action rather than leaving orchestra-sitters, at least in the Old Vic’s current configuration, craning their necks to see.) The unhelpfulness of this particular in-the-round design illustrates the larger failings of an evening that suggests a director either gone uncharacteristically slack or else simply uninterested in that component without whom no theatrical agon can take place — the audience.
On paper, Sophocles and Donnellan should have made an exciting match, since there’s scarcely anyone better at animating anew the time-honored tensions of a classic. (His Cheek By Jowl “Measure for Measure” remains the most exciting account of that tricky play that I have ever seen.) But “Antigone” follows this summer’s “Hay Fever” as Donnellan’s second West End misfire within five months. The production takes so casual an approach to its crackling face-offs that it seems doubly unfair to place a sizable chunk of the audience — “Copenhagen”-style — in steeply raked banks of seats at the rear of the stage, their alertness (or not) on full view to everyone else. As it is, opening night did provide one unexpected frisson when a cell phone went off to the tune of the “William Tell” overture, though the accompanying adrenaline rush turned out to be all too short-lived.
Warehouse Prods. is the commercial arm of the Donmar Warehouse, whose recent “Electra,” with Zoe Wanamaker, went on to amplify its London triumph with an even greater one on Broadway. So it’s reasonable enough to have expected some sort of jolt from a return to the Sophocles canon, even if “Antigone” — in anyone’s hands — is inevitably a more muted piece than the breathless “Electra.” Indeed, in light of its title character’s disappearance from the play two-thirds of the way through, one wonders whether a better title for the play might well be “Creon,” especially given Jonathan Hyde’s wounding performance as that recalcitrant Theban king, Antigone’s uncle, who closes the play consumed by loss. (“You are hungry, Hades,” is Creon’s chillingly concise summation of events.)
At heart, the play is a battle of wills: Creon wants left exposed the corpse of the dead Polynices — brother of Antigone (Tara Fitzgerald) and, like her, child of Oedipus — which she wants buried. He sees it as a cautionary symbol of the ravages of civil war, while she is motivated by a sisterly grief and profound love that find her prepared, if necessary, to share her brother’s tomb. It’s the state vs. the individual, or so the confrontation first appears, until Teiresias arrives, warning Creon of ruinous losses to come. Ultimately, Creon and the now-absent Antigone are found occupying a closer point on the spectrum than they ever envisioned. They are linked in stubborn attitudes toward life that find them — in varying ways — staring headlong into death.
“Antigone” is an admittedly tough play, its emotional timbre cooler and less immediate than that of “Electra” even if both heroines are similarly single-minded. Nor does Antigone in her willfulness invite the same direct empathy as the vengeful, bereft Electra, since it’s crucial to the point of this play that she must meet Creon head on, inch by unyielding inch.
Even so, it’s one thing to make an ancient text live for today, another to seem to be sending it up, particularly via Zubin Varla’s dimwitted, haltingly spoken guard, whose bizarre comic routine tallies with a cast that often sound as if they are translating the language in their heads as they speak. (On the other hand, phrases like “shove off” need no translation.)
With the exception of Hyde, all four principals are double or triple-cast, backed by a chorus of pole-wielding drama school graduates whose faded military attire suggests an ambulatory POW camp in high ululation. (The liturgical score is by Paddy Cunneen.) As these nameless sad-eyed men traverse the stage, the leads generally circle the perimeter of it, with Anna Calder-Marshall making an impressive entrance carried aloft as the doomy Teiresias. (In a neat touch, the same performer — now playing Eurydice — leaves the stage before she has even heard the full account of son Haemon’s death.)
Elsewhere, one looks in vain for the abiding spark that might make sense of Fitzgerald’s very careful, no doubt deliberately unemotive delivery — a fine actress in apparent directorial freefall — or the real passions to bounce off the unrevealingly empty space of the set. Instead, it’s as if the heavily ornamental surrounds of the theater are mocking the play to the degree that the gods do its inhabitants. For all the textual threat of madness, this “Antigone” is sadly becalmed.