Antigone is a short, intense and deeply political play, as relevant now as it was two and a half millennia ago. Though it is set in a society alien to our own, the issues it explores are universal.
The production I saw at the National Theatre is set in a nuclear bunker of sorts, closely modelled on the photograph of Obama and his aides receiving the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death. You can smell the stale cigarette smoke and sweat of a bloody conflict barely ended. Greek tragedies are prone to claustrophobia, since ancient views on dramatic unity decreed that they should take place only in real time and space; i.e. a single location. But this production makes those limitations into a strength, and although the mental collapse of the protagonist Creon happens frighteningly quickly, it never feels at all contrived.
This is a credit not only to Sophocles’ writing and Don Taylor’s translation, but to the particular intense qualities of Christopher Eccleston, who is outstanding in a role that he seems born to play. He begins as the voice of reason, quickly taking control of a society’s fragile return to normality, and his implacable decree that the body of the enemy’s leader should remain unburied seems justifiable, if a little harsh. Clearly, these are harsh times.
But Creon’s decree is an affront to the gods, and therefore an even greater threat to social order than the recent war. Antigone, sister of the unburied man, defies Creon in the full knowledge that it will cost her her life. A collision course is set between public and private morality.
Creon remains implacable, and slowly reveals that his main course of strong leadership comes with a poisonous side order of cruelty and sneering vindictiveness. His son, betrothed to the condemned Antigone, pleads with him to show mercy. They end up having a punch-up on the floor. The Chorus of staff gradually, fearfully, begin to express their reservations. But it takes the arrival of the blind prophet Teiresias, and his stomach-churning speech against angering the gods, to articulate the full implications of Creon’s hamartia.
Eccleston’s Creon is a bomb waiting for the appropriate detonation. You walk on eggshells around him. Even when voicing sweet reason, there’s a manic glint in his eye that makes you cross him at your peril. He spends the play receiving reports of disasters that threaten his authority, and his reactions are subtle but telling. A slight tightening of the jaw, a hardening in the eyes, the suggestion of a nervous tic; all these are manifested within a body that appears, to the casual onlooker, to be utterly controlled. But the electricity of unpredictable tyranny fills the stage. Those who think of Eccleston as a working-class hero might be surprised by how completely he embodies worldly power here.
But Creon is not a monster, though ever since the Romantic period productions have tended to present Antigone as a feminist icon, a freedom fighter or at least a beautifully devoted sister. Creon is trying to establish something we can recognise as a modern state, governed by human wisdom and expediency rather than custom and religious observation. We can identify with such a goal, even if he does not arouse our sympathy.
It is inevitable that the gods will exact their revenge. Greek tragedies were performed as part of a religious ritual, after all. But the source of their enduring power is that they challenge us to consider both sides of an eternal conflict in a nuanced way. What actually happens to Creon, and breaks him – the suicide of his son in Antigone’s living tomb, is arguably a logical consequence of his own actions, yet the spectre of divine retribution is the motor that drives the play towards its grim and inescapable conclusion where Creon, bloodied, stripped bare of all pretence, becomes totally vulnerable and says simply, “I ought to be dead.”
This is a fine reading of a magnificent play, the antithesis of the derivative and superficial entertainment that has become ubiquitous in our society, and it’s a pleasure to see it packing a theatre. Eccleston embodies the Arisotelian definition of a tragic hero, invoking both pity and terror. Although his fine work in Doctor Who is unmentioned in the theatre programme, it is possible to see a common thread between the two roles, both of which explore a character capable of god-like powers, but only too aware of the cost, both to self and to society, of indulging such impulses.