Office Politics

The National's Antigone is politically compelling but lacks a sense of awe

Anne McElvoy

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.

After that, it’s a bit of an anti-climax. As fate devours the most dysfunctional family in Thebes, the death of another son is cut out to simplify the story, but that leaves us with some very odd gaps. For one thing, it makes the suicide of Eurydice (a subdued performance by Zoë Aldrich) and the chorus’s commentary on the accumulation of horrors hard to credit. And it leaves us feeling little more than a ho-hum sense of tragedy played out, rather than the awe that Greek drama should arouse. 

While we’re on the subject of  troubled relationships in the shadow of death I went to The Sunshine Boys at the Savoy Theatre with the greatest reluctance, being generally allergic to any play that wears its cheerfulness so demandingly on its title. I then spent most of the first act snorting, giggling and generally having a whale of a time, in common with an audience hanging on Danny DeVito’s every wisecrack.

The plot of Neil Simon’s play, long regarded as a poor imitation of the peerless The Odd Couple, is of course downright daft. A long-estranged couple of Vaudeville comedians are to be brought back for a one-night-only performance. Little good can come of this. Willie nurses decades of grievance after Al (Richard Griffiths) popped out for a break from the partnership — and never returned. He lives in retirement in New Jersey, or “the countryside” as Manhattanite Willie witheringly puts it.

Around this trusty maypole Simon weaves a deft tale of old age, longing and death, complete with Vaudevillian put-downs: “How can you remember anything? Your blood doesn’t circulate.”

Griffiths has the heavy lifting to do here: a less exciting part than DeVito. The grand curmudgeon of the British stage lumbers on like a giant mobile armoire — only to end up waging war with Willie, simply by means of the two men competitively rearranging the furniture for their long-awaited reunion sketch. As the final ironies of the relationship unfold, we see the awful truth of The Sunshine Boys: as populations age, many more of us are going to end up like Willie and Al — just nowhere near so funny.

A tale of two halves, finally, from the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, which reopened a year ago. The old Marlowe was a pit of such ghastly grubbiness that it thoroughly deserved demolition. A splendid new structure has arisen on the same site, with the support of East Kent’s more prosperous burghers, commemorated on a board of donors. It is strange indeed that just as the government flounders in a philanthropy tax-trap of its own making, arts institutions are so grateful for dosh that donors are getting the recognition once accorded only to local saints (which, in a way, they are).

Yet something strikes me as missing at the Marlowe and I have just realised what it is: more good drama. This is, after all, a    theatre bearing a name that invites the best of English theatre. So far, poor old Chris has hardly got a look-in among the comedian nights, Legally Blonde touring productions and Elkie Brooks concerts.

Regional theatres do need to offer a range of things to very different audiences. That necessitates a mix which won’t please everyone, all of the time. But look through the programme of the Marlowe over the summer and it is a bit depressing, frankly. 

It does not have to be like this — the brilliant all-male Propeller company’s recent Henry V was enthralling and drew in solid audiences. Never have there been so many really good small theatre groups doing the rounds for directors to choose from for short runs. The odd diamond beckons, like Cape Town Opera’s Porgy and Bess, but a lack of ambition attends the Marlowe so far. In a prosperous university city, graced with a spanking new stage, there’s no excuse for that.

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