Director Polly Findlay told the NT Platform audience before last night's performance of Antigone that she was hoping to recreate the atmosphere of an HBO television drama, using the Olivier's concrete bunker architecture to simulate an underground control centre. It's a perfectly valid way of approaching Sophocles' tragedy but I'm not sure that it succeeds completely.
Using the Olivier for the first time is a huge leap in scale for any director, and there's no doubt on the evidence of this show that Findlay will be invited back; one of the exciting hallmarks of Nicholas Hytner's rule at the National Theatre has been the chance he has given to women directors such as Marianne Elliott, Thea Sharrock and now Polly Findlay to use the big stage. At 29, Findlay is probably the youngest woman to direct a play in the Olivier, and possibly the youngest director altogether.
As she highlighted in her Platform conversation with Fiona Mountford, the set design came long before the rehearsals -- as it always does in big theatres like the National. Soutra Gilmour has used echoes the curving concrete walls of the Olivier auditorium to shape her circular bunker, peopled by a chorus of desk-bound men shifting paper files, scribbling on pads and monitoring electronic signals. There are cold war phones, reel-to-reel tape recorders but no modern computers; Findlay and Gilmour have recreated the high-surveillance world of the GDR with a nod to the film The Lives of Others, and there's a photo of actor Ulrich Muehe in the programme. Like Muehe's secret policeman in the film, Christopher Ecclestone's King Creon is a very human monster, moving forward to comfort Antigone before he learns why she has been arrested. Findlay avoids the theatrical cliches of orange prisoner jumpsuits and fascist-style jackboots, which is excellent news.
But there are several reasons why I feel this production falls short; it certainly never engaged me to the same extent as other Greek tragedies I have seen on stage. At the moment I'm rather under the influence of seeing a series of very simple and effective Shakespeare productions at the Globe, which have relied on an absolute minimum of set, sound and costume. This type of theatre liberates the actors to communicate with the audience, encouraging the spectators to use their imagination as much as possible. Like many of the RSC's recent Shakespeare productions, this Antigone does the opposite; it piles on detail after detail on stage in too naturalistic a manner. However much Polly Findlay may love HBO, television and the theatre are different things. Much of the detail on stage is fairly invisible from the back of the circle anyway, unless audience members bring a pair of binoculars (I always do). Opting for a high-concept design approach can often stifle the freedom of the actors, and I think that happens in this production. Christopher Ecclestone is good but not great as Creon, and the same can be said for Jodie Whittaker as Antigone, who never really conveys a sense of threat and danger.
Any director of Greek tragedy has to make bold choices, and Findlay has certainly made hers; last night she defended them with great intelligence and verve. But there's a downside; what goes missing is the powerful potential of the drama as ritual. The realism of the director's approach isn't carried through consistently; in a surveillance society, shouldn't we be seeing grainy black and white footage of Antigone burying her brother's body? I left the theatre feeling a bit indifferent rather than shaken by this retelling of the story.