Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Antigone at the National

I wish that the National Theatre could take over the existing UK government and run it out of Cottlesloe as a play in progress.  They know everything they need to know to do this from their current production of Antigone by Sophocles.  Holy shit, what a production.  What a choice of a play.

When I was a little kid I bought an anthology of plays at a garage sale.  This anthology had Antigone. At age eleven,  I  loved the heroine of this play because she was so fearless.  She was so unhesitant in doing the right thing. What I loved about Antigone when I saw the play again  on the eve of my 45th birthday, was the bigger picture:  The hollowness of authority, the sanctity of love.  Seeing that love must always win over abuse of power.

The criticism of the U.S. War on Terror in the opening scene is unspoken and ingenious.  At the King's headquarters, he and his advisers watch a screen where someone is being killed.  They move into a perfect tableau of the famous photograph of Hilary Clinton, Biden, Obama and selected others watched the live feed of the Bin Laden execution.  And they stayed there for a long time.  Unmistakable.  When the State kills its enemies, someone ends up murdered, and that is not right.  No, it wasn't right when Al Qaeda did it on 9/11 and it wasn't right when the U.S. did it to Bin Laden.  Even States should comply with the rule of law.

The King is played by Christopher Ecclestone, who was Dr. Who before David Tennant (never4get) and Matt Smith.  Ecclestone really bothered me as Dr. Who, he didn't have the expansive, endless love of humanity I felt was essential to the character. He was a reserved Northern unemotive Dr, even slightly awkward.  As Timothy Dalton was to James Bond so Christopher Ecclestone was to Dr. Who.   This exact quality served Ecclestone him well as King, though.  It somehow highlighted the fragility of the King's authority and its hollow, fearful center.

He doesn't start out fearful, though, he starts out convinced of his merit for the job and the importance of the State. In a kind of John Prescott style, he speaks: the interests of the State and of all of its citizens are one and the same, and only complete fidelity to the State will be tolerated. He has decreed that no one will bury the body of the dead soldier, the traitor to him, the new King.  Antigone cannot bear to abide by this decree and thus condemn her brother to be an unhappy ghost, she breaks the prohibition as quickly as possible.

She is brought before the King and condemned.  She is sentenced to being walled into a cave in the distant desert with a little food.  Thus no soldier will have blood on his hands. Wow, I thought.  Drones.  Sophocles was warning about drones back then.  It is an odd sort of remove, to kill with bombs and drones.  When the play ends everyone is covered with blood but to me the most chilling thought was how mechanizing killing makes it that much easier.

The King is warned by his old friend the blind soothsayer Tiresias that his decree against the burial of the traitor was short-sighted and irrational.   The King, I would like to say, realized that in transgressing the bonds of love and family and decency, he had overstepped the authority of the State but actually all that happened was that he started to be frightened of the dire consequences Tiresias predicts.

The King's son is Antigone's affianced (also her cousin) and he kills himself after he finds Antigone dead, and his mother kills herself after hearing the news of her son's death.  

Clean, lean, direct, riveting, true.



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