Yesterday I saw Antigone at the National Theatre, starring Christopher Eccleston and Jodie Whittaker. It’s an excellent production, and the play raises interesting issues surrounding our choices and their consequences. From an arrogant, contemptuous and self-assured king, immovable in his judgements, Eccleston captures Creon’s total defeat and resignation after the death of his son as he acknowledges his culpability. The discovery of his wife’s suicide precipitates a total collapse as he crumbles in front of our eyes. Whittaker was equally engaging as Antigone; her steely determination as she decides to bury her brother and her conviction as after her capture she rails against Creon, certain that these principles are worth dying for.
As always, the articles in the National Theatre’s programme were interesting and informative. Laura Swift identified the central conflict in the play, with competing obligations to family and community, as Antigone and Creon embody private and public loyalties. This reminds me of Thomas Otway’s 1682 Venice Preserv’d, with Belvedira and Jaffeir torn between loyalty to each other, to their beliefs, and to the state. I guess this demonstrates the longevity and timeless relevance of these themes. Swift suggests that in antiquity audiences would have disapproved of Antigone’s actions as a woman, while much of Creon’s ideology would have been readily accepted in Greek society. It’s important to bear this in mind when judging Creon’s actions. As Swift points out, Creon may have gone too far in forbidding Polynices’ burial but the decision was certainly his to make. Swift links this to the differing reactions to the play of a modern audience, compared to the likely thoughts of Sophocles’ contemporaries. A belief in the importance of duty to the state, as well as in the propriety of the subservience of women, would both have contributed to a more sympathetic attitude towards Creon and perhaps a disapproval of Antigone’s actions, even if her motives were admired.
Discussion of what people 2500 years ago might have thought of the play is interesting, but should it affect our viewing? While understanding contemporary societal values and beliefs might reveal the author’s intentions, I think that standing alone the play remains relevant as an exploration of tyranny and statecraft. The play has gained special relevance at certain points in history, for example in reference to Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. Just as the collective memory of Athens’ last tyranny 70 years earlier made the play politically relevant to contemporary Greeks, modern European events have coloured audiences’ perceptions of the play. Each new audience imposes its own morality and values. What is clear is that human nature doesn’t change; it seems that there has always been and always will be tyrants, just as there will always be those willing to stand against them in defence of what they believe.