A year ago I saw an Antigone which used a Middle Eastern setting to make a point about conflicting value systems under the Iraqi occupation. Polly Findlay’s thrilling revival in the Olivier’s Travelex season shows the other, domestic side of the coin. In wanting to give burial rites to her dead brother Polynices, Antigone is following mainstream social values; in decreeing that the rebel should remain unburied and unmourned, and in ignoring all counter-arguments, Creon the king of Thebes is exalting his own convictions above both political reality and the good of the state, which he identifies as being equal to his own will.
Findlay and designer Soutra Gilmour use a contemporary office setting, which gradually becomes apparent as a governmental hub: in the glass-walled back office sits Creon, in front in open-plan the Chorus of military and political advisers discusses events, weighing loaded words for a press release about the end of the Theban civil war. Then Christopher Eccleston enters as Creon.
There is no diplomatic way of putting this: he is Tony Blair. This is nothing so crass as an impersonation, with all those strange, rigid hand gestures. But Eccleston’s Creon is driven, like Blair, by a conviction that personal certainty can and should override any amount of popular opposition, and he is similarly unimpassioned in his delivery. Even when railing against his rebellious niece Antigone (Jodie Whittaker) or the blind seer Tiresias (Jamie Ballard, half his face crusted over, giving as excellent a performance as ever), this Creon never shows his feelings, or more likely never really understands what it is that he is supposed to feel.
In the final minutes, on receiving the news that his niece Antigone, his son Haemon (who was betrothed to her) and his wife Eurydice are all dead, he unexpectedly cries, “I am nothing!” in the ecstatic roar of the vindicated narcissist. This Creon is a tragic protagonist who fails to learn that it is not all about him.
There is no modishness to the staging or, despite the foregoing, to the interpretation. This is a simple, clear, modern-dress production which is both faithful to Sophocles’s original (in Don Taylor’s unadorned 1980s translation, neither florid nor blunt) and speaks vividly to our contemporary experience. It shows admirably why such classics are cherished for their timelessness and paradoxically also for their continuing urgency.