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  • Published in Arts Review

Jane Shallice thinks there are modern things being said in the National Theatre’s new production of Sophocles' ancient Greek tragedy Antigone

Why should anyone trail along through the litter of monarchical celebrations, passing a building festooned with the big as a house photo cascading down its front, which as it overlooks the river, is the expression of some untold love for an old woman who seems to have been living the life of Riley on our money for the last near century?

Why, when most journeys through the metropolis are recognized warnings that all is not well, do I urge you to trek to the National Theatre? Why, when all the signs, and all the forecasts are bearing witness to a crisis, maybe not a civil war but of war in another form?

Why go and sit in a space modeled on a Greek amphitheatre, and with hundreds of others watch in the half light from the stage a group of actors perform the play written over 2400 years ago? What relevance is Greece to us? And similarly the answer to such a question, whether asking about the current political and economic focus on Greece, is “Everything!”

Don Taylor’s translation of Sophocles’ Antigone is 90 minutes of story telling which grips and questions, and whose language is direct and framed within a poetry form that flows and draws you into the essential dilemma of the individual and the state.

Set in Thebes after the chaos of Oedipus, the new ruler Creon is determined to institute order. An order imposed through clear decrees which all must follow. In the preceding civil war, Antigone’s two brothers who ought to have shared the rule died fighting each other. Eteocles refused to relinquish the state was buried by the new ruler Creon, with all traditional honours, whilst the body of his brother Polynices, denounced as an invader, was to be left exposed to be the food of the raptors and rats. This was a punishment designed not only to be brutal and inhumane, all human societies believing bodies should be either buried or burnt , but within Ancient Greece to remain unburied would prevent them returning to the underworld. It is this edict from Creon as a warning to any future “rebels” that is the key of the play.

The play opens with Antigone, Polynices young sister, hearing this and being determined to bury him. All know that this will bring her into the arena; we watch and listen as she asserts the right of the individual to question and contest a law which, she believes, is inhumane.

And in Don Taylor’s interpretation of the play, Creon is obviously attempting to bring social peace to a city, which has experienced the most horrendous civil war. It is not just a crude dictator facing the forces of good; the whole interpretation is far more subtle than that.

“No-one who is an enemy of the state
Shall ever be a friend of mine.
The State, the Fatherland, is everything
To us, the ship we sail in.”
“In this city, and I have noted them,
A subversive faction, enemies of the State,
A cell of opportunists, call them what you will,
Who reject the law and my leadership!
They meet in secret, and nod and whisper
Their seditious talk and they are behind this……..”

And yet it is Creon who says

“…..Money, gentlemen, money! The virus
That infects mankind with every sickness
We have a name for, no greater scourge
Than that! Money it is that pounds
Great cities to piles of rubble, turns people
By the millions into homeless refugees,
Takes homeless citizens and corrupts them into doing things
They would be ashamed to think of
Before the fee was mentioned, until there ‘s no crime
That can’t be bought.

This is a production that runs without an interval, around ninety minutes of being completely absorbed into the arguments and watching the inevitability of yet other tragedies unfold. And as in all Greek drama, the horror of the actions is described, not displayed; a dramatic contrast with the culture in which we live, where everything has to be exposed and scrutinized; everything has to be seen. Yet for Sophocles as for the other Greek playwrights, the actors use language to convey the scenes and the tragic ends and we, the audience, are gripped by the images that the chorus or the messenger reveal.

Suffice it to say, the central character is Antigone, a young woman, who would have been a figure who in public would have had no social role other than daughter or mother. Yet Sophocles ensures that her arguments are as strong as those of her uncle; for Greek audiences, who would have been mainly or solely male, this would have been striking, that a young woman (and not a goddess) was of equal stature to the ruler of the city.

It is a superb play and one deeply resonating with current concerns (I would swear that I heard the phrase “We are all in it together”) and if in London you should see it. It is salutary that the National Theatre is not playing to full houses. Maybe it is due to the increasing squeeze or it could be that central London is hardly an attractive place with union flags all over the place and either the jubilee or the Olympics to act as centrifugal forces, sending right minded people to other areas of Britain (or elsewhere). But this Antigone is worth the watching; with some fine actors performing a hugely important and timely play.

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