... and it still goes down a treat

Why has theatre fallen in love with an ancient playwright like Sophocles? Robert Butler reports
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In a fortnight's time, a play that's 2,500 years old will move into one of London's most prestigious commercial theatres and run for the next three and a half months. The title role is played by Tara Fitzgerald, giving only her third professional stage performance. Of the 17 members of the cast, half of them are making their stage debuts. The play taking the Old Vic into the next millennium is Sophocles' Antigone. This is a story in which the heroine kills herself, her fiance kills himself, and, on hearing this last piece of news, the fiance's mother kills herself too. "It's very austere," says the producer Caro Newling, in her office in Covent Garden. "Do you think we're mad?"

At the end of the last century the Victorians were banning performances of Greek plays on the grounds of obscenity. Now, at the end of this century, Greek tragedy is being staged at the two main theatres on the South Bank - the Old Vic and the National, where Katie Mitchell is directing Ted Hughes's version of The Oresteia.

Shelley famously said, "we are all Greeks". But Dr Paul Cartledge, Reader in Greek History at the University of Cambridge, and author of The Greeks, says today's appeal lies in the tension between what we recognise and what we don't: "To me, the key element is alienation or otherness.On the one hand, fifth-century Greeks are surprisingly like us - beginnings of history, philosophy, scientific medicine, democracy, etc - and on the other they're so desperately unlike us - pagan, slave-holding, women- oppressing. Tragedy seems to me an absolutely brilliant example of this sameness-difference tension."

To judge the scale of the commercial risk that the producers of Antigone are taking, I went to Guildford last week to see how it was going down with a Home Counties audience on its pre-West End run.

It was a wet Tuesday night. The entrance of Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud Theatre was considerably brightened by the posters advertising forthcoming attractions. It was what you might expect. Kate O'Mara will appear as the Genie in Aladdin. Christopher Timothy and Simon Ward are in a thriller called Mindgame. David Soul is in a new Ayckbourn play, Comic Potential. I joined the queue at the box office. It wasn't moving. I questioned the woman in front. She said: "This is the queue for returns."

The foyer was packed. There were students, Surrey matrons with pearl necklaces, and baggy-trousered adolescents with mobile phones. An elderly couple gingerly weaved their way past: "There's no interval, dear," said the woman to the man. "You better spend a penny first."

Inside there was a more expectant buzz than you would hear at the first night of a musical. The lights went down, and came up on a gleaming wooden floor with wooden walls at either end. Tara Fitzgerald stood on one side with long curly hair and spectacles. Anna Calder-Marshall came in from the other side. They hugged, they wept. They hugged and wept some more. Fitzgerald said: "Ismene, my sister, my soul, can you believe that Zeus has new pain for us?" The next hundred minutes took the audience on a completely unexpected and enthralling journey - fresh, immediate and wonderfully strange - and the answer was that Zeus was indeed in a very mean mood.

"People expect it to be inaccessible and they find, when it is presented in a clear and uncluttered way, that it's full of passion," explained James Barber, director of the Yvonne Arnaud. "Two people are standing on stage and speaking, and there's this white-hot emotion. It's incredibly engaging. You can't duck it."

To begin with it looked as if Guildford was going to manage to duck it completely. The advance was terrible. "It was always a big gamble," says Barber. "Looking at the figures, you put your seat belt on and prepare for a crash. Before we opened we were taking pounds 500 a day. We opened on the Wednesday and on Thursday we took pounds 2,000, on Monday we took pounds 3,000 and on Tuesday we took pounds 4,000. A lot of people are talking to one another and saying it's one and a half hours and it's exciting. Word of mouth is so key. We're selling out."

The production is directed by Declan Donnellan, the former artistic director of Cheek By Jowl. "Antigone is a play I've always wanted to do," he says. "It's of permanent relevance: the individual against the state. It's often seen as play about a romantic against a bad state. So often we have a sentimental version. It's much more sophisticated than that."

Recent productions of Greek classics, such as Katie Mitchell's Phoenician Women for the RSC and David Leveaux's Electra at the Donmar, have been inspired by events in the Balkans. The central dilemma in Antigone lies between the strict imposition of law to restore some order and the demands of religious duty. Donnellan's production makes no reference to the Balkans. He has written a new version of the text, aiming "to stick as close as possible to the original". He worked from a literal translation commissioned from an Oxford academic. "That was very salutary. People get hung up on the grandiosity of the poetry. It's the simplicity that's ordinarily missed."

He adds: "It would be so easy to do a laconic look at the individual against the state. But in Antigone there isn't any of that back-footed irony. It's very hard and passionate. There's a beauty and simplicity to the choruses. They're glancingly apt. They're apt at the deepest spiritual level. The pattern of the choruses imply another play that's going on."

I suggest that since TV does naturalism so well, theatre-goers are looking for a radically different ex- perience, and that Greek drama offers this. "There is a tremendous hunger for the scale of performance that Greek drama demands," Donnellan says. "There's a hunger for a heightened reality. Drama students love exploring these mammoth texts that take the actors somewhere other than late-20th century realism."

The Donmar's 1997 production of Electra, starring Zoe Wannamaker and also produced by Newling, was a blueprint for reintroducing audiences to the drama of ancient Greece. It went on to Princeton, where, according to Newling, "it was an opportunity to test the cultural climate in terms of Broadway. The producers who came to see the show were impressed by the quality. That wasn't the issue. But they were completely cautious. They said, " you can't do a Greek play on Broadway". Fortunately for Newling, one producer - Anita Waxman - disagreed. "She was convinced she could make it work if she capped all the salaries and kept it to an eight-week run." The critics went to town: "A performance of unarguable greatness ... a miraculous achievement," said the New York Observer. It played for four months. "It became a very important play in that context," says Newling, "It didn't pull any stunts."

For Antigone, Newling has adopted a similar approach. "Everything is heavily capped. We need to play to 50 per cent capacity. The chorus is getting just over West End minimum. No one's on star salaries. Pre-recoupment, everyone comes in on a fairly low rate and then if we recoup, there's profit-share and it's split amongst the whole company." But how will she sell Sophocles? "What you mustn't do is hype it. You have to stress the importance of what the play has to say in today's world. Instead of seeing it in the context of classical theatre, we want to encourage people to see it in terms of why it resonates now."

One of the co-producers, ACT (which owns eight theatres in the West End) has a database of 400,000 theatre-goers. That's only the ones who have used credit cards. "There's a constituency of animated theatre-goers," says Newling, "who are actively hungry for serious drama." The producers had thought of returning to a trusted venue and doing tragedy at the Comedy. "But we were enormously aware that if we moved from the Comedy to the Old Vic the potential for box-office revenue was far higher. The financial prognosis is far better."

Antigone will be presented in the round, with the audience seated as if in a mini stadium. Newling produced draft after draft of the budget to discuss with the investors. "You do scrape away. No one wants to go into a project where the figures don't stack up." The cast, including understudies, was reduced from 23 to 17.

Sophocles has to take his place in the market alongside everyone else. But he has one major technical advantage. When it comes to writing tragedies that conform to the Aristotelian unities and have a beginning, a middle and an end, he has hardly any modern competitors.

`Antigone': Old Vic, SE1 (0171 928 7616); previews from 1 Oct, opens 11 October