|Tyrants are more frightening than this|
A paranoid tyrant reacts to dissent by issuing absurd retributive mandates and persecuting the young, the poor, and the vulnerable. Arguments about common decency from citizens and counsellors fail to make any impression. Torture and arbitrary death sentences, as well as sacrilegious neglect of corpses and funeral customs, become the stuff of everyday life. Am I talking about Syria in June 2012? No. This is the situation in the Thebes run by Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone, currently in production at the National Theatre in London.
|Antigone, under arrest, brought to Creon|
Not that you would notice that the play is about tyranny and terror. The National Theatre is now only interested in television stars, irony, and gimmicky special effects. For some time now I have been increasingly discomfited by the social and political cowardice of its productions of the Classics.
It was disturbing when the 2008 Oedipus starring Ralph Fiennes was 'sponsored by Shell', a company with a reputation for cosying up to dictatorial regimes (some humourists at the time suggested the connection could be explained by the parallel between the ancient Theban and modern Nigerian experience of pollution). But last Wednesday night, it was actually hard for me to keep still.
How is it possible that actors of the calibre of Christopher Ecclestone and Jodie Whittaker can fail to engage us in a superb play about taking a stand against a brutal despot who has the state army at his disposal? How can it be that there was no audience reaction whatever when Sophocles’ answer to Bashar al-Assad threatened his proletarian guardsman with slow death by torture?
How it is possible that in a world where just last week dozens of children and women were slaughtered in Houla, this Creon had been directed to play it for laughs when he called the bereaved and distraught sisters Antigone and Ismene ‘neurotic’?
Don’t get me wrong. I like radical, amusing and subversive adaptations and reappraisals of canonical literature and drama. I LOVE having a good laugh in the theatre even when—or especially when—the planet seems cruel and depressing. I don’t particularly like being preached at about human rights by earnest liberal thespians who have never been persecuted, either.
|Antigone and Rosa Parks|
But respect is required if you are going to put on a masterpiece which has been performed, at personal risk to the personnel involved, under conditions of state terror. Antigone has protested against tyranny in Jaruzelski’s Poland and in apartheid South Africa, for the independence movement in Manipur and for the mothers of the disappeared during the Dirty War in Argentina (see Antigone on the World Stage ed. E. Mee & Helene Foley ). At the National Theatre she comes over like a spoilt child who has been told by the manager of her riding school that she has been excluded from the annual gymkhana. NUL POINTS, NT.