Ah, the Greek tragedy. One set, one long scene, generally speaking one long bore. That’s how I tend to see them, and after Alan Cumming was unable to make me interested in the Bacchae, I have pretty much giving up on going to them. But then I got an invitation to see Antigone at the National Theater from a friend, and though I didn’t want to go (a former Dr Who actor is not really a draw for me), it was only £12 so I thought I ought to really make the effort. Then … joy! … my friends who went to previews said it was only about 90 minutes long. Hooray! All things considered, I was feeling much more cheerful about this as I headed into the Olivier than I had any right to be if I was honest with myself about my usual experiences with ancient Greek theater.
And then … SHOCK … it was AWESOME! Right, I’m not saying it was a drop-everything-must-wait-in-line-five-star miracle, but it was a darn enjoyable night out. The script had been updated to not sound too utterly bizarre (although not much can be done about the discussions of the “rightful place of women and society” and some of the stuff about Greek religion and rituals), and the setting, with the opening tableau of the Obama Kills Osama Situation Room, nicely places it in The World of War, which actually is a world that’s very much alive today and still doing a wonderful job of making people slam down ethics and morality (and common decency) in the name of “The State.” And the play itself is beautifully set up as one about The State (for so King Creon – Christopher Eccleston – defines himself) versus The Conscience, which is the voice pushing Antigone (Jodie Whittaker) to act in a way that violates the laws of the state … or to be unable to live with herself.
As a fresh new ruler, Creon is eager to consolidate power, and this means he wants to be inflexible about his laws. This is, as ever, the spark for the Greek sin of hubris – but when did Creon really have a choice about what he did? Admittedly, he didn’t have to be so paranoid about people who were violating his laws doing so for money or to overthrow the state, but he’s right to think that being soft at the beginning will make his rule more difficult to enforce later.
To my surprise, I realized shortly into this play that while the premise was familiar, I was not sure about the ending – I do not like to read playtexts for fun, and this Sophocles was not in my school curriculum at any point. I do, however, really like myths, but for these family stories there are often different endings out there (i.e. Clytemnestra) depending on which version you read. I think I’d heard about the fragmental text by Euripides – and, well, while I suppose I should know which is which, it’s a joy to me to sit through a play not knowing how things will play out (a joy I will preserve for the few of you who, like me, walked in blind).
So … it all just plays out magnificently, as inexorably as a great orchestral score (imagine “The Firebird”), the characters all manipulated instruments but each singing so sweetly as it moves towards the melody required of it. And BAM! it was all over so fast, and I had to remind myself (as I walked out, exhilarated, into the long twilight of a London summer) that it was TRAGEDY and thus DOOM DOOM DOOM but boy, wasn’t it all just really fun anyway?
(This review is for the opening night performance on May 30th, 2012. It continues through July 21st.)