It’s not easy to bring to mind many plays of the vintage of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone which have a strong female central character. I suppose it’s mainly for this reason that the play, first performed in 1949, continues to endear itself to headstrong school girls. The character of Antigone, as envisaged by Anouilh, is of a certain archetype that has never really gone out of fashion – the tomboyish freethinker, resistant to the established order, and familial counterpoint to a prettier, better behaved sister. In this sense, Antigone remains a play very much of the modern era, even if its themes of the inevitability of fate, and honour at any cost, have less resonance in the early 21st century than when Anouilh wrote it in Nazi-occupied France as a response to resistance fighter Paul Collette’s remarkable acts of solitary defiance.
Sophocles’ rendering of the ancient Greek legend of Antigone is, I suspect, less well-known now than Anouilh’s but the story is the same – Antigone, aghast at the edict given by her uncle, Creon, prohibiting proper burial rites for her dead brother Polynices, defies the law by attempting to bury the body. Antigone knows that, if caught, she will be put to death and, as the chorus reminds us in the play’s opening scene, it is never in any doubt; Antigone is destined to die, and there are no means by which she can circumvent her fate (in the end, she is immured – a lovely word for an especially unpleasant form of execution).
The sisters, in Edwin Kemp Attrill’s laudably minimalist production, are played by Sara Lange and Karen Burns. Lange, as Antigone, gives an accomplished performance, restrained and dignified, quietly rather than demonstratively tough. Burns is less successful – nondescript, and at times difficult to hear – in what is, to be fair, a fairly thankless role. Tom Cornwall, as Antigone’s doomed love interest Haemon, makes even less of an impression, commendably earnest but never compelling. In a play with only two good parts, it is not surprising that Antigone only soars during the scenes between the titular heroine and Creon, who is played by Michael Baldwin. Baldwin – more slighted backbencher than thundering king – is marvellously sinister, his lumpen, lurching physicality consistent and disquieting. Genuine theatrical electricity was generated during the scenes in which Creon confronts Antigone following her arrest. Lange and Baldwin play off each other consummately, producing palpable tension even if Lange can’t quite match Baldwin for sheer presence. I felt the interval, which fell mid-scene just as the two were beginning to hit their stride, was misjudged; it’s a testament to the quality of these two fine actors that I did not want to leave the theatre.
Kemp Attrill’s production, with lighting by Stephen Deane and sound by Rory Chenoweth, is crisp and clean, its drab colour palette of mainly greys, blacks and creams an effective echo of what the chorus tells us about tragedy, about the kind of play Antigone is: clean, restful, flawless. This is a corporate world, not a kingly one. On opening night, I remarked to a friend (and, as it happens, assistant director and production manager of Antigone) that this is amongst the most technically proficient productions I have seen at the Theatre Guild. He seemed surprised which is, perhaps, telling but I sincerely hope it may be a trailblazer in this regard.
The pointed use of dolls (mentioned, in Anouilh’s text, only in passing) is a surprisingly effective directorial touch which works both to point up the play’s background and unfolding narrative, and to suggest where the real power in this world lies – not in individual freedoms, but in the arbitrary impositions of the state. We should not fear, as perhaps Sophocles would have had us, the gods as envisaged in antiquity, but our own gods, the unelected custodians of the modern economic and political system: the Rupert Murdochs, the Paul Wolfowitzs, the Wall Street Wolves of our own time. Make no mistake – Antigone is, in Kemp Attrill’s hands, a thoroughly political play. When Creon, having just put Antigone to death, blithely remarks that he has a cabinet meeting to go to, a chill goes up the spine. It’s a chill that reminds us, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s phrase, evil is banal, that there is nothing horrible about the crimes of the state – just, perhaps, inevitable.