The National Theatre’s Antigone brings this ancient tragedy forth into a modern day setting. It is quite astounding how the ancient moral dilemmas are still very much applicable to today’s tumultuous society.
The tale is based upon social values, power, and mortality. Antigone, the eponymous heroine, longs to follow her heart as well as her religious beliefs by giving the last burial rites to her dead brother Polynices, Yet her uncle, the newly crowned King Creon has decreed that the rebel must be denied these rites and be left unburied. The King is blinded by his sole focus on the power of the state and loses sight of all reason. The chorus arises from Creon’s support staff of office workers, guards, and mail room staff.
This is the young director Polly Findlay’s first show in the cavernous Olivier Theatre. She and designer Soutra Gilmore have placed inside a pentagon-like office with armed security, glass walls, and desks made for paper shuffling. The rotating set is brilliant and once again provides another design triumph for the National.
Christopher Eccleston’s performance as Creon is enchanting. You know the car crash is coming, but he so completely embodies the role, that the audience cant help but watch in awe and agony. His character is driven by both a personal certainty and a need for power that together create a poisonous mix. His continuous missteps – first with his niece Antigone (Jodie Whittaker) then with his son Heaemon, and finally with the soothsayer Tiresias (Jamie Ballard) – his pride continues to lead Creon right to the catastrophic fall. Yet he is obstinately blind to the consequences. Ballard’s tortured performance as the scarred prophet who summons the furies is superb.Whittaker physicalises her torment and the accelerated descent from rebellion to insanity.
This is a simple, straightforward, and faithful staging of Sophocles’s work. Findlay has successfully set this ancient story in modern times. It is a powerful piece that resonates. It is full of energy and the messages, thanks to the outstanding performances and high-paced staging, ring true. I left breathless.
In the poem ‘Whispers of Immortality’, TS Elliot says of the playwright John Webster, ’Webster was much possessed by death and saw the skull beneath the skin’. This rather pertinent couplet offers a microcosmic view of what to expect from the work of Webster. He was a man obsessed by the darker faculties of the human condition. Perhaps his most famous play, The Duchess of Malfi, has been revived at the Old Vic by director Jamie Lloyd, whose most recent output was the brilliant Faith Machine at the Royal Court.
This Jacobean tragedy takes place in the court of Amalfi and is set upon a beautifully ornate backdrop of a labyrinth of intricately patterned walkways- a perfect place for a pernicious intelligencer to go unnoticed. The story centres on the eponymous Duchess, a recent widow, who has two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, who want a significant part of her inheritance and are loath to allow her to marry again.
In order to prevent this from happening, Ferdinand hires Bosola, an intelligencer and former servant to the Cardinal, to spy on the Duchess and report back in the event of anything suspicious occurring. The fate of the Duchess takes an ominous turn when she falls in love with Antonio, a lowly steward, and embarks on a secret relationship with him, trying her utmost to keep her secret away from her psychopathic brothers.
The emotionally demanding role of the Duchess is delicately portrayed by actress Eve Best, most noted for her roles in The Kings Speech and American TV drama, Nurse Jackie. She is but the innocent party in a bevy of wolves that are made manifest by her brothers.
Ferdinand’s descent in to madness is also brilliantly realised by actor Jamie Lloyd with his rodent like features and slick black hair, he gives off the air of a deeply disturbed, conflicted and mercurial man, wildly confused in his feelings for his sister- from the very moment he enters stage and before he opens his mouth, you know already that you are watching one of the main villains of the piece.
This production is truly horrific at times as we see the extent people will go in order to get what they want. The contrasting villains of the calculated Cardinal with the hot blooded and belligerent Ferdinand are brilliantly realised as is the conflicted Bosola- even in his darkest moments, there is always a flicker of humanity and remorse for his actions and this makes him a truly fascinating character.
This production comes recommended although I do warn you, it isn’t for the faint hearted! Webster liked to explore the darkness of humanity and The Duchess of Malfi has it in spades.