By Sophocles, translated by Don Taylor
Directed by Polly Findlay
Venue: Olivier Theatre
Date: Tuesday 19th June 2012
The modern setting was obvious as soon as we looked at the stage. Three office cubicles, glass-fronted, were on the back of the revolve, with several desks and chairs scattered about the rest of the stage covered with files, anglepoise lamps, and assorted office equipment from typewriters and reel-to-reel tape machines through to laptops and TVs. Above all this were hung round light fittings, some of which were broken, revealing the bulb (low energy, of course). One desk was front and centre, with a young man watching what turned out to be a TV screen, and underneath it all was that low frequency droning sound which is used, far too often, to create a sense of threat. It also creates a sense of nausea and a headache in those who are susceptible to such things, including me, so not the best of starts.
The droning stopped a little before the action started, thank goodness, and then, with a huge crash which startled a number of us, the play began. The young man snatched up the phone, spoke to someone, and then another chap rushed in, followed by more men, with Creon emerging from the centre cubicle, I think. They moved the desk and gathered round it, and like the American officials watching some US military action via satellite, these men watched as their side won the final battle of the civil war. Much celebration all round.
While they partied, the set swung round to show the back of the cubicles, which consisted of a curved, textured wall with two passageways between the cubicles. Antigone emerged from one of these passages, clearly upset at the carnage she’d just witnessed – I presume she’d been spying on events, although I didn’t see her on stage for the opening scene. Her first lines, addressed to Ismene, were unintelligible, partly because she was facing away from us, partly because the music was a bit too loud, and partly because I wasn’t clear what accent she was using, so it took a while to tune in. (RP has its advantages.) Antigone and Creon were definitely from the north of England, though everyone else seemed to be fairly Home Counties, as far as I can remember.
Apart from this early dialogue, the lines were pretty clear, and I enjoyed the freshness of this translation. It did lose some aspects of the poetry, but the meaning was very clear throughout, and there were some choice modernisations, such as Creon’s use of the word ‘administration’ when referring to his own government of Athens. The story was told precisely, with no significant cuts or rearrangement, and although I do find the final stages less interesting, when there’s just the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth to get through, this production told a powerful story well. I did find the gaps between scenes a little too long, but there were some good bits of business, such as Antigone’s arrest procedure – searched, photographed and hands secured with a plastic tie. The soldier reporting the ‘burial’ of Polynices’s body was good fun – a nice performance from Luke Norris – while Jamie Ballard was excellent as Tiresias, getting a round of applause as he left. His makeup seemed a bit excessive to me – did he really need to have some kind of skin complaint plastered over his left eye? – but the performance got past all that.
Christopher Ecclestone was also very good as Creon. He had the politician’s arrogance, and while I’ve often felt the injustice of Antigone and Haemon dying when it’s Creon who’s offended the gods, this time I was aware that the play is more about Creon, his choices and his suffering, as a moral lesson to Athenian men not to displease the gods. Luke Newberry as Haemon was also good, and it was nice to see Paul Bentall as a military man trying to advise Creon to do the right thing.
The chorus and other characters were fine, so it was only the emphasis on detailed realism that held my enjoyment back today. If anything, the set was too elaborate, with too much going on for the tension to build properly. For example, I noticed the tape recorder during one interrogation scene, because a bit of tape was sticking up and was going round and round; this didn’t add to the experience for me, and in general I find that a lot of modern productions make this mistake, confusing ‘reality’ with ‘truth’. So although it’s a good production, it wasn’t my favourite by a long way.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me