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Polly Findlay's new production of the classic Greek tragedy is potent and powerful.

Christopher Eccleston and Jodie Whittaker
in Antigone
(© Johan Persson)
Christopher Eccleston's intense but measured performance as Creon dominates Polly Findlay's production of Antigone at the Olivier Theatre.

It's a tense, taut affair in which Thebes has become an Eastern European police state. Soutra Gilmour's imposing set with its great curving concrete wall is bunker-like and forbidding, while the visual palette has 1970s overtones, all beiges, greys and muddy greens.

After a devastating civil war, Creon, the new king of Thebes, decrees that the dead body of Polyneices must be denied a proper burial and left to rot in the streets. When his sister Antigone (Jodie Whittaker) attempts to perform the burial rites, Creon is infuriated and decides to make an example of her, condemning her to an awful, lingering death, walled up in a cave. This act, and his unwillingness to bend or to listen to reason -- his refusal even to heed the pleas of his own son, Haemon, who was betrothed to Antigone -- leads to tragedy.

Eccleston is superb as the new leader whose self-belief and conviction is initially unshakeable. Looking a trifle uneasy in his blue suit, his gestures are precise, his enunciation careful and clear. He is a man very aware of how his behavior and actions are perceived; it's a restrained, but potent portrayal, even if he seems unwilling to loosen his grip on his character's sense of propriety and control even at the very end when his hands are stained with the blood of his loved ones and he has lost everything.

Whittaker has a clear-eyed quality as Antigone, a woman determined to do what she believes must be done while all the time understanding that it will cost her dear. But there's a lack of fire to her performance, even though there is something wrenching about the stoicism she displays as she is sent to her death.

Jamie Ballard gives a brief but powerful performance as the blind soothsayer Teiresias and the chorus, made up of office functionaries and military figures, speak both as one yet also have their own characteristics, with Kobna Holdbrook-Smith standing out amongst them.

Don Taylor's version of the text is punchy in places but often merely functional and sometimes even clunky, and the whole police state update never quite justifies itself, but there's an undeniable potency to the production as a whole.