The one thing I always said when I started writing this blog was that I’d never, ever review theatre. Far too dangerous- as an actor myself, I’d always be making all kinds of icky quasi-moral choices that I didn’t need to make. What if I gave a rave to a director I’d like to work with and it ended up looking like sycophancy? What if I saw a mate being dreadful?
Well, rules are made to be broken and I hope you’ll understand why I felt the need to share some thoughts about Polly Findlay’s devastating production of my dad’s translation of ANTIGONE, which opened at the Olivier tonight.
It’s become a cliché to talk about how the greatest Greek plays effortlessly bridge the 2500 year gap since they were written, but my goodness this play is about things which are in our newspapers daily. Just look at this week’s news: ANTIGONE has something to say about Syria. About Leveson. About Charles Taylor’s imprisonment and Julian Assange’s extradition. About austerity and plan B. I’m pretty sure I could find a link with the French Open, too (Serena and Venus have something of Attic Tragedy about them) but I don’t want to labour the point. It would probably be labouring the point, too, to point out that in my first two paragraphs I used the phrases ‘moral choices’ and ‘rules are made to be broken’. There are Antigones everywhere, every day.
But it wasn’t the 2500 year gap that was uppermost in my mind. It was the nine year one, and the twenty-eight year one. Making no apologies for partiality, the crowning glory of this production is dad’s extraordinarily tight, lucid, poetic, clear and theatrical translation. He started work on it in 1984, directed it for telly the same year, and died in 2003. It's an old translation, by anyone's lights; we're as far away now from when he wrote it as he was then from Bill Haley and Hungary and Suez. But we don't even need to do that striking piece of maths. When he died, never mind when the translation was written, we lived in a very different society.
We were at war, just, when he died- but dad never lived to see the Messianic, god-told-me-to-do-it Blair, just the slick politico who smoothly paved the way for invasion. Dad was dead long before London exploded in 2005, when those four kids- Antigones themselves, or maybe Creons?- strapped bombs to their chests in the name of what they thought was right. And that means that he lived and died in a Britain where our civil liberties were never a major issue. He never worried about being scrutinized by government, or having his emails read, or leaving voicemails for friends that would be listened to by journalists. He didn’t see our current government, which when it is caught out in lies tells us loftily and with a sense of entitlement that those lies don’t matter. And yet in his interpretation Sophocles’ words, heard in 2012, don’t sound like they were written by a dead man a lifetime ago. They sound as if they were written tomorrow.
More accurately, in this production, they sound as if they are occurring to the actors as they say them. There’s a freshness, a directness to the way the lines are delivered- not a moment of ‘acting’ takes place all night. Jodie Whittaker, as Antigone, manages to radiate moral authority without ever sounding pious or preachy; there’s a simplicity to her passionate belief in what’s right. But then, as Antigone faces death, she pulls off a heartbreaking change of tack. When she appears in a prisoner’s smock, allowing her possessions to be bagged and signing her own death warrant with a flourish, she is defiant, certain. But once Creon has pronounced exactly how she is to die, we see real life and real death flooding into her idealistically-created moral kingdom, bringing terror with them. It’s the difference between the way we all airily say ‘yes, I think I would have died to defeat Nazism’ and the way we might actually behave if someone were to have a gun at our head. Whittaker’s Antigone never loses her nobility or her integrity- but she breaks our hearts by showing us her fear as well.
Christopher Eccleston’s Creon is daringly undespotic, reasonable even. He has all the arguments and his refusal to bury Polynices because of the message it would send is hugely modern- it reminds us that we have somehow degenerated into a society where the PR implications of a decision have become more important than the moral ones. His final disintegration is breathtaking. We don’t get the stagey destruction of a tragic hero (‘Howl, howl, howl, howl, howl’ and all that) we get something smaller, more honest, a man who isn’t even close to processing what has happened to him. At the end of the play, this Creon knows nothing, except that it’s all his fault.
But it’s invidious to focus on Whittaker and Eccleston, outstanding though they are. This is a supremely good ensemble. I could write a paragraph on the excellence of the Haemon- here a bright, unworldly public schoolboy who is too clever and too young for his own good- or the brilliant Soldier and Messenger, or the show-stopping Tieresias, or the stoically silent and heartrending Eurydice. One of the incidental irritants of being an actor is that when you go to the theatre, there’s usually at least one performance which makes you think ‘Nah. He’s not as good as me. Every line he says is going to annoy me from now on. In fact I’ll probably be trying out my own line readings in my head after everything he says’. None of that here, no distractions at all, in fact. I was in the unusual audience-member position of being entirely immersed in the world of the play from its first moment to its last.
Of the production itself- set. costume, directorial decisions- I don’t want to say too much, because I hate reviews which leave you with no reason to see the actual show. You may, however, be unsurprised to hear that I thought they were all ace.
So now, it’s over to the inky scribblers to pronounce on the success or failure of this production. (I was sat next to one, and in front of another, of our most respected critics and can I just say at this point, gentlemen, that you should A: clap properly and B: stay till the end of the curtain call. It’s only a few hand bangs and about 45 seconds out of your very important lives, and it’s also only common fucking courtesy). The initial signs are that the notices are going to be good. But that doesn’t matter, because tonight something bigger than any review happened. Tonight a man who died 2500 years ago, and a man who died 9 years ago, got together with some actors and a director and a designer and a crew, and told us about a society neither of them ever saw, but which both of them understand.