Fate will devour them: Christopher Eccleston and Jodie Whittaker in the NT's "Antigone" (Johan Persson)
Antigone at the National Theatre opens in an office, courtesy of Soutra Gilmour's design, that looks like a cross between the Stasi minister's lair and David Brent's Swindon office: all pointless files and wire paper-racks. Thus we know from the start that this will turn Sophocles's drama into a political tract. We are not wrong. Things start out well in Polly Findlay's production. Jodie Whittaker's Antigone is northern, feisty and spitting with impotent anger at the new ruler Creon's vengeance on her slain brother Polyneices.
So far, so Greek. From Hegel to Anouilh and Brecht, great writers have been fascinated by the tensions this drama evokes between familial loyalty and belief in state and leadership. Not in this version, alas.
Creon's defence of his rule is sent up so hammily by Christopher Eccleston that the National's audience tittered at the logic. But this is not Sophocles's point at all. He may, as an enlightened metropolitan Athenian, regard Thebes as a backward place full of retrograde and cruel customs, but he does give Creon an argument for the consistency of state power with a force that foreshadows Hegel's "insight into necessity". That is what makes the play both great and unsettling.
Eccleston (who played Nicky in Our Friends in the North and one of the sundry Dr Whos) is an intriguing stage presence, with all the mannerisms of a politician who doesn't quite believe his own logic, and thus says it more loudly. Don Taylor's free translation sprints along, but feels choppy, perhaps because so much has been omitted to render all this in 90 minutes.
The play does leap into life when Tiresias (Jamie Ballard), the deformed blind seer, hurls himself onto the stage, to warn of the downfall of Creon — and is taunted by the ruler for money-grubbing, thus driving him to announce that things can only get worse.