Thursday, 26 July 2012

Antigone - National Theatre, London

21st July 2012

I had studied Antigone by Sophocles during a course at the Open University (I covered the OU in my beginner’s blindness series.). Sophocles is one of three tragedians from 5th Century Athens, the others being Aeschylus and Euripedes.  At this point screenreaders will have noticed the mess JAWS makes of some Greek names.  Spelling variations make searches for Greek dramatists or poets as difficult as Dutch or Flemish artists. 

Antigone is reckoned to be the 2nd play of Sophocles after Ajax, but is NOT part of a trilogy with other Oedipus stories.  Sophocles invented the 3rd character speaking on stage at the same time.  His early work is a mix of speeches, dialogue and back story filling.  Greek drama regarded violence and killing as “obscene”, meaning it had to be done offstage.  At the end of a play there is a body count and Antigone is no different. 

My joining the National Theatre’s access programme allows me to have a CD sent to me with all details of performance, set, actors and descriptions.  Helpful hints on making the best of the trip are also provided. 

First stage: CD arrives

Chorus split into many voices.
I wondered how complicated this would make the play and how on earth was the describer (Bridget Crowley) to keep up with so many more speaking roles.  

Set 40 years ago. 
This could refer to many authoritarian regimes and hints are given to a possible country with no political democracy. 

Cast list and detailed set and props. 
This enables one to recognise an actor who may be well known from other work in theatre, radio and TV from the voice.   After 2 listens to the CD I had an idea of the set and props in my mind. 

Second stage: Touch Tour of set and meeting the cast

Introduced to company and cast: Creon (Christopher Eccleston), Haemon (Luke Newberry), Teiresias (Jamie Ballard) and one of the chorus (Craige Els). 

Craige’s role in the production involved acting as henchman in chief of Creon.  I was shown desks, rooms with glass walls and bunker concrete walls which had been broken.  Craige explained the use of the revolving stage and my cane managed to do a full circuit of the groove track on the Olivier stage.  Craige took me round the set while we discussed likely authoritarian regimes.  I have known a few from the 1970s onwards.  The bunker mentality did not stop with 1945.  We discussed the translation and how true the performance of Antigone really was. 

At this point it is worth noting that the Ancient Greeks thought nothing of fitting legend into modern Athenian politics.  A major unresolved issue was usually set in Thebes which can be described as an anti-Athens.  Other writers used themes from the Trojan War or Greek Theology as metaphors for some political dissent.  All the writers including the comedy writer Aristophanes served in the army.  At the time of Antigone, the Athenians were yet to set out on a prolonged war with Sparta though they had enjoyed a period of stability with Pericles.

The main characters are:

Antigone played by Jodie Whittaker
Ismene played by Annabel Scholey
Creon played by Christopher Eccleston
Haemon played by Luke Newberry
Teiresias played by Jamie Ballard
Eurydice played by Zoe Aldrich
Messenger played by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith

Third stage: the performance

Prof Whitestick fortifying himself before the performance
Antigone, National Theatre, London
21 July 2012

About 15 minutes before the performance a live description can be heard on the infra red headsets provided and checked at your seat.  This enables the set we have visited to be placed in context.  There is some action from the chorus and one can adjust to movement.  This is virtually a Parados. 

The play starts dramatically in the end of a bloody battle in which Antigone’s brothers Eteocles and Polynices have killed each other. Creon has decreed that the latter must not be buried.  At this point the ancient Greek battle of civil law and moral code breaks out.  Antigone stubbornly sticks to the rules of the gods/nature (physis) while Creon, newly crowned, rules by decree (nomos meaning man-made).  The problem cannot be resolved and leads to dramatic entries, messages and the fore-telling of the last moments of some of the characters.

Greek plays are suitable for visually impaired people as the dialogues and speeches are fairly easy to follow.  In keeping true to the text but complicating the chorus role, the NT handed Bridget a tough job in keeping up with the entries and stage movements.  Bridget had warned in the CD that shorthand names would be used for the characters in the production formed as a chorus.  

The play has some in-built tension at the beginning with some of the music beating out dactyl (dah diddy) rhythms.  Most of English prose and poetry is based on iambic pentameter whereas much classical Greek poetry and Latin uses dactylic hexameter.  Stage English sounds uncomfortable in this meter and this added in my mind to the tension about to explode in scenes with Antigone and her sister and later with Creon. 

The music and sound effects were overwhelming at points and having been told at Detroit that my headset was a bit loud (by a friend) I was careful to turn down the description when I felt I did not need it.  In this production the audio description is important in understanding how Polly Findlay (the director) brought Sophocles’ version of Antigone up to date.  Not long after I lost my sight I went to the National Theatre production of Iphigenia in Aulos.  Knowing the story helps in many of these 5th Century Athenian plays.  In a small studio one can get away without the audio description, but one misses part of the story. 

The unsung heroine of the productions was of course Bridget who gave another live performance.

Finally, if Helen of Troy launched a thousand ships, then Antigone launched millions of 6th form and undergraduate essays, which this post is gradually morphing into …