Antigone is astute but star disappoints

 
Steve Dinneen
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THEATRE
ANTIGONE
The National Theatre | By Steve Dinneen
***

Christopher Eccleston is theatre gold – the kind of name guaranteed to sell out a run.

He has certainly chosen a cracker in Antigone: an expertly crafted play that’s as politically astute as it is deftly choreographed. Unfortunately – and surprisingly, given his excellent track record – Eccleston himself turns out to be the weak link.

Polly Findlay’s interpretation of Sophocles’ classic play is set during an ambiguous point in the 20th century but the political message is searingly contemporary. The action takes place in a military headquarters, with a gripping opening scene recalling the infamous photograph of President Obama and Hillary Clinton watching the siege on Osama Bin Laden’s compound. It paves the way for a frenetic 90 minutes that’s over long before you have time to appreciate the meticulous direction and flashes of brilliance from the outstanding supporting cast.

Eccleston plays the tragic king Creon, whose dogged insistence on upholding his principles against the weight of popular and moral opinion – a clash between relativism and objectivism with clear modern parallels – threatens to topple the entire state. But his hubris-driven descent into desperate self-preservation is never quite plausible and Eccleston too often looks a little lost.

Jodie Whittaker is also overshadowed in her role as the eponymous Antigone, daughter of Oedipus through his incestual relationship with his mother. Her decision to bury her brother’s body against Creon’s wishes sets in motion the tragic chain of events, which ends up how these things tend to. She plays the doomed girl as a plucky rebel but is easily forgotten during her long periods off-stage.

Jamie Ballard does neither Eccleston nor Whittaker any favours, delivering a bravado turn as the blind oracle Tiresias; his latex-clad face alive with rage at Creon’s pigheaded arrogance. A performance this powerful could upstage almost anyone.

Perhaps Eccleston had an off night – he certainly didn’t wear the expression of a man who had put in a great shift when he returned to the stage to take his bow – but I’m not sure I’d be making excuses for him if he weren’t a household name.