Sophocles’ tale Antigone provides more than enough reassurance that your own family strife is quite minor really. Written around 400BC, it is the third of the Theban plays which cover the fate of Thebes during and immediately after King Oedipus’ reign.
Oedipus, you will remember, unintentionally killed his father and married his mother, thus dooming his family for three subsequent generations. Antigone, a daughter of this incestuous union, is left picking up the pieces after her brothers, Polynices and Etecoles, slaughter each other whilst fighting for control of Thebes. A challenging character, she defies the new King, her uncle Creon, in his decree that Polynices should not be buried, but as a traitor should lie rotting outside the city walls.
This play remains relevant to our times with themes of familial duty set against the greater good of the state. Creon embodies extreme misogynistic views, shielded from public opinion he breaks his intransigent stance too late to alter the course of events.
Polly Finday’s contemporary 90-minute production runs like a TV thriller with pulsing music between set changes. It commences with a scene reminiscent of the White House staff watching via video link the killing of Bin Laden, or, in this instance watching Polynices’ assault on the city. The set is starkly modern with wood and glass panelled offices containing the modern paraphernalia of our own workplaces. This contemporary feel is difficult to maintain as the play progresses; after all, prophets, even those with a track record like Teiresias’, don’t occupy much of a place in today’s politics.
It’s the supporting cast who are strong here: Annabel Scholey makes a tragically sympathetic Ismene whilst Luke Newberry’s Haemon is one of the most engaging and moving performances of the show. Much needed comedy is also brought by the messenger (‘the bloke who brings bad news, never gets a medal’), Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. Findlay’s use of the political advisors, military men and office functionaries to make up the chorus is an excellent touch. Their asides move the action on seamlessly while showing the divisions and conflicting views within Thebes.
By Rachel Phillips
Antigone is showing at the National Theatre until 21 July. Tickets are from £12. Photo shows Christopher Eccleston as Creon and Jamie Ballard as Teiresias, photo by Johan Persson.