An Antigone for our time

A bang-up-to-date version of Sophocles’ classic, complete with a god-angry photocopier, proves illuminating.

Patrick Marmion

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One of the beauties of Sophocles’s Antigone is that she is out of reach of psychoanalysis. Given that her father was Oedipus Rex – the undisputed king of all complexes – you might expect her to have some very serious psychological difficulties. And yet, there is very little ‘on’ her. It means that there is something uniquely pure about her story of standing up to King Creon and demanding the burial of her brother who has been left to rot outside the walls of Thebes as an example to others. Her cause is unalloyed with ulterior motives.

The scenario is of course a parable that has bewitched successive generations. As the academic Laura Swift says in her National Theatre (London) programme notes, Antigone has long since served as a template for the battle between public and private moral imperatives. For the Ancient Greeks it was the conflict between the polis and the individual in the contexts of its own imperial wars and the disenfranchised, largely invisible, population of women. For Romantics like Byron and Shelley in the nineteenth century, Antigone became the epitome of sisterly love. For Jean Anouilh in Paris of 1942, she was reborn as the spirit of the French Resistance against the Nazis.

To modern eyes she can also be seen as a proto-feminist defying the edicts of patriarchal power. But Polly Findlay’s production at the National Theatre transposes the action into what is effectively President Barack Obama’s war room. The action starts tellingly with a tableau of the actors gathered round a television watching a duel between two soldiers – an image that directly cites Obama et al watching the assassination of Osama bin Laden in May last year. And it is of course a particularly neat analogy given that Obama saw to it that bin Laden was buried at sea in contravention of Muslim burial traditions. But that is about as close as this production gets to a specific indictment of the arbiters of global democracy.

Here, we are instead treated to the entertaining spectacle of the director trying to have her cake and eat it – preserving the play’s mythic-ritualistic core and giving it a modern hyperrealist makeover. Creon is accordingly played by a suited Christopher Ecclestone, who is confronted by Jodie Whittaker as an angry young woman. The production matches the open-plan managerialism of today’s politicians, with an office set that’s all concrete and glass. Fashionable modern costumes mean beards, socks and sandals, while set changes are choreographed to electronic music. And in a beautiful image of the mythic and modern, a possessed photocopier suddenly starts spewing paper as a sign of the gods’ displeasure.

The Greek chorus providing the normally hair-tearing punditry are transposed into a crew of pen pushers and press officers spinning Creon’s message. Creon’s son Haemon is a weedy but brainy public-school boy unable to match his father’s brawn but thrusting well ahead in political analysis. Then, the soldier who catches Antigone attempting to bury her brother is a frightened squaddie who’s been on one too many tours of duty. The hermaphrodite prophet of doom, Tiresias, is a kind of Star Trek character with blistered skin covering most of his head – a man out of time and yet a victim of the times.

There are, however, too many routine gestures which make Whittaker’s Antigone very much one of us, rather than the astonishing, wilfully stubborn outsider that she should properly be. Her northern accent for one is something that immediately announces her as an honest and righteous individual who we are bound to trust. It is a representation that makes her too familiar, giving the narcissistic pleasure of identification rather than the shock of a reckless moralist who grounds her integrity in her imminent destruction.

The real problem, though, is with Ecclestone’s Creon. He observes many of the tics of a modern statesman, such as removing his jacket to stand arms akimbo while delivering slick speeches pleading political necessity. He is of course also right to reject Tiresias’s claim that no one condemns a man who ‘recognises his folly and changes’. Everybody knows such men are routinely reviled as shilly-shallying u-turners by political pundits – even if those same pundits also endorse u-turning as fully consultative, authentically pragmatic ‘listening’. However, the more fundamental problem with Ecclestone’s Creon is that he is a measured, mannered, distant figure, neither fish nor Führer, blowing neither hot nor cold.

You might think it doesn’t matter too much that he’s such an uncertain figure – the play is after all about Antigone. The thing is, though, that it’s not. The play’s tragedy is really his. She may be a defiant heroine, but he is the one who is punished for his hubris of setting his civic law before the law of the Gods. And in modern terms that means a failure to pursue a fully pragmatic flexible approach to government through spin. Instead, he prefers to follow Antigone’s example and stick to his guns – even in the face of certain doom. He might well ask himself the same question put to Antigone at the start, ‘Why begin something when you know you can’t succeed?’.

This question is at the heart of the play and is surely an ideological formulation par excellence. It reduces politics to the art of the possible and presents us with the false choice of having to do as we’re told. The only viable action is defined as one that has a positive, ‘successful’ outcome. This is the logic of today’s business process where all that is must be auditable. It is one way a state secures its authority: designating what’s possible and ruling out the rest.

It is exactly such a dilemma that is faced by countries facing default in the Eurozone today. They are told that they must either submit to financial discipline and accept the devil they know or step into the abyss. Resistance in those countries, meanwhile, takes on the appearance of Antigone’s foolhardy, wilful determination to reject the devil she knows and go right ahead and step into that abyss. But given that Creon mirrors Antigone’s intransigence, is it not possible to say that, mutatis mutandis, his determination to stick to ideological imperatives also threatens to crumble into the abyss? This is exactly what happens at the end of the play when the gods of natural justice reek their terrible revenge.

The difference between Creon and Antigone is, rather, a matter of faith: his naive faith in the ‘success’ of his worldly dogmatism and her faith in an idealism which is undaunted by its final failure.

Patrick Marmion is a freelance journalist, playwright, founder of Soapbox debating forum and a part-time tutor at the University of Kent.

Antigone is playing at the Olivier Theatre in the National Theatre, London until 21 July 2012.

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Topics Culture


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