Antigone, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

Witty war of words
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"We taught them shock and awe," declares Barrie Rutter's sharp-suited Creon in this compelling, if unbalanced, revival by Northern Broadsides of Sophocles' Antigone. The unmistakable echo of George Bush - heard, too, in the Theban ruler's talk of wiping out terrorist cells - seems a touch excessive. Far from launching a pre-emptive strike of dubious morality against a foreign power, Thebes has just emerged victorious from waging a war of self-defence against an invading alliance. This is one point where the normally persuasive modern resonances in Blake Morrison's robustly eloquent translation are pushed too far. Rather than giving us a warts-and-all portrait of Creon, it's in danger of presenting a depiction that is all wart.

Sophocles' protagonist is not a smug superpower president, but a man bent on promoting stability in a state that is just emerging from civil war. From a political point of view, his ends are honourable. But his means - making an example of his treacherous nephew by refusing burial to his corpse - disastrously violate religious laws, as his niece Antigone is right to protest. It's Creon's misfortune that the situation brings out all his worst characteristics, but we should not forget that the situation was not of his choosing.

In this version, with itsblunt contemporary Yorkshire accent, his faults are comically glaring - whether it be his chauvinist attitude to women ("You can take your loving nature down to hell/ I'll not take lessons from a girls' school," he tells Sara Carman's fierce, fiery Antigone), or his mean-spirited view that all men have mercenary motives, or his morally snobbish lack of familial compassion ("What does she have to be so proud about/ Where she came from? Stroppy cow").

Barrie Rutter plays him as a kind of puffed-up, paranoid town councillor - pig-headed, small-minded, self-pitying. It's a performance executed too much on one note. You lose the sense of the character's hideous journey from pragmatic statesmanship, through troubled tyranny to howling tragedy. The great clash between individual conscience and the interests of the state, and between human and divine law, is thus robbed of dramatic intensity and turned into a loud slanging match because the dice are so loaded against Creon.

And yet there is much that is extremely arresting about this account. Dressed in utility suits and vests, the excellent male Chorus, advancing rhythmically in clogs, is here seven-strong - self-consciously mirroring the number of gates successfully defended ("we thrashed them seven-nil") in the recent war. This numerical preoccupation is then darkly developed in the Chorus's great ode to our species, where the ineradicable flaw in man's greatness, "Death, which you can defer/ but never defeat", is mordantly referred to as "the eighth gate".

There's a lot of grim, rueful wit in Morrison's translation. Unable to decide which is worse - rushing to Creon with some bad news, or failing to - Conrad Nelson's Guard tries to explain his dilemma, and there's a cheeky, deadpan in-joke in having him say, "Though I didn't have many miles to come/ all the dithering turns it into a... marathon." Likewise, there's a stingingly modern political edge to the phrasing when Antigone rejects her sister's belated resolve to walk beside her: "Get off. You should have given your hand before/ I've no need of fellow travellers now."

But the best productions of this play, in the weight they give to both sides of the argument and in the temperamental similarities that they reveal in the heroine and her uncle, leave you feeling that the tragedy could as well have been called Creon. For all that he looms so vividly in Rutter's own staging, the new ruler is flattened into a two-dimensional figure who does not make you hanker for a rechristening.

Tonight (01284 769 505), then touring

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