18 FEBRUARY 1949, Page 14



Antigone. By Jean Anouilh.

The Proposal. By Anton Tchehov. (New.)

WHEN he chose Tchehov's farce as a curtain-raiser to M. Anouilh's grave play, we may assume that Sir Laurence Olivier was aiming at contrast, at putting his audience into a mood so rollicking that the change from slapstick to tragedy would come with a shock like falling down a lift-shaft. In this case the age-old artifice aroused one's worst apprehensions : for the rowdy interpretation of The Proposal was so exclusively, indeed painfully, English that one feared for the fate of M. Anouilh's intensely French play. These fears were, happily, unfounded.

It was apparent that everything was all right from the moment the curtain rose, revealing a statuesque group of all the characters in Antigone, seated about in the grey dawn light of the terrace of the palace of Thebes. The Chorus (Sir Laurence Olivier in a dinner-jacket) stepped forward to point out and explain who each of them was ; and with great detachment he immediately gave us the sense which should pervade all tragedy—the sense of doom. M. Anouilh has taken Antigone, set on burying her brother Polynices despite her uncle's proclamation of the death penalty for such an act, and made her into the type-figure of moral resistance against State tyranny. Watching this French play now, one naturally sees it in terms of the French Resistance during the war, just as the cowardly arguments of the lovely Ismene, who refuses to help her sister until it is too late, are those of the Vichy French. The topical slant which M. Anouilh gives the play adds an overtone of emotion to what is in itself an extraordinarily brilliant and moving piece of playwriting. The biggest surprise of the performance is the acting of Miss Vivien Leigh, who brings to Antigone a taut strength, and a restraint which may surprise even the most loyal fans of this beautiful actress. Her voice, which it is permissible to suggest has not always been her strongest point, is deeper, more intense and controlled, less genteel than we remember. She gives Antigone the loneliness and desperate courage of a lost and determined child, while at the end, when the condemned girl is dictating a letter to her lover, she is properly tragic. This is a splendid performance. Mr George Relph as Creon avoids being too remote and remorseless, and thus ends by being all the more terrible. His unwinding of the sinuous and specious arguments with which the dramatist has armed him is exceedingly persuasive, and in the long scene in which he and Antigone argue about her fate they hold the audience silent and cowed. The lucid comments of the Chorus become more urgent as the play proceeds, and as Sir Laurence makes convincing M. Anouilh's views upon the " neatness " and " cleanliness " of tragedy. He makes the development of the play seem, as it should seem, inescapable.

This is the first of M. Anouilh's plays to be seen at a large London theatre, and we may hope that others will follow. Antigone demonstrates once more, if demonstration be necessary, the peculiar intellectual vitality of post-war France.