REVIEW: Antigone, Barbican ✭✭✭✭

Last Updated on 16th March 2015

Juliet Binoche in Antigone at the Barbican
Antigone. Photo: Jan Verweyveld

12 March 2015
4 Stars

In the opening number of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Pseudelous points mischievously at the actor playing Domina and says slyly: “She plays Medea later this week”. When, in The Producers, Roger de Bris and Carmen Ghia are explaining to Max and Leo that the key to successful theatre is simple, one example they cite is: “Oedipus won’t bomb if he ends up with Mom.” References to Greek drama, whether comic or tragic, abound in modern theatre.

London seems in the grip of a kind of Greek Masterpiece resurgence at the moment, with Orestia scheduled for the Globe this summer and the Almeida announcing a trilogy of Ancient Greek plays, including another version of Orestia, as part of its next season. Kristin Scott Thomas has just finished a successful season at The Old Vic in Electra. The National mounted an epic production of Medea recently enough for it to be snubbed at this year’s Olivier nominations. And, currently at the Barbican, Ivo van Hove’s production of Antigone by Sophokles (Greek spelling, not Latin, for those interested in that kind of thing) is playing to packed houses.

What do modern audiences want from Greek tragedy? It’s hard to know if that is the question most to the fore in van Hove’s mind, but the production he skilfully presents certainly suggests an answer to that question: something fresh and relevant which resonates with modern audiences, if not in exactly the same way as it would have with Sophokles’ original (circa 441) BC audience, then in a similar, personal and uncomfortable way.

If your view of Greek tragedy is that it should be interminable, histrionic, lyrical, grand and unfathomably disturbing, then this Antigone is not for you. But if you are open to the possibility that Greek tragedy can tap into the fears and troubles of any generation, then this is an irresistible production, compelling and disturbing.

Not everyone these days is aware of the historical background to Antigone. Happily, there are two excellent essays in the programme which provide that context for any audience member who wants to be well-informed as van Hove’s production commences. In one of those, van Hove himself says: “Antigone develops from a play about a brutal war into a play about politics and public policies and ends as a play about the helplessness of humans, lost in the cosmos. It is a play about survival: not the survival of an individual or a family, but of a whole society, perhaps even the world. The play is ambivalent and dark, modern and mythical, leaving one with more questions than answers.”

As the key to unlocking van Hove’s production, that statement is in the master skeleton category: it tells you most of what you need to make sense of the approach taken, the choices made and the manner of presentation.

Working with his usual collaborator, Jan Versweyveld, van Hove presents the audience with a somewhere/sometime, now/then design which is enormous, empty and constantly changing. There is a hospital quiet about the place; a sense of stillness, of a moment in time, suspended and foreboding. At the very front of the stage is a long thin finger of a space which could be part of the exclusive offices of any modern business or government; there is a sense of power and money about it – a space where decisions with consequences are made.

Up a level and behind, a long platform stretches across the stage, blank and empty, waiting for something. An enormous white flat provides the backdrop; in it are two geometric shapes – a rectangle and a circle. The rectangle opens to provide a door, access to another place. The circle has a more complex role: when Kreon and Antigone’s dispute commences in earnest, the circular piece of the the flat moves out and commences a clock-wise circle, leaving behind a hole through which different sorts of light can flood or creep, depending upon the mood of the moment.

At different points, video images (devised by TalYarden) are projected across the backdrop – the desert-like Boeatian plains; the unseen but omnipresent populace of Thebes watching and listening to the power play, ready perhaps to take matters into their own hands; the interior of the rock where Antigone and Haimon meet their fates. These images unsettle as well as provide a sense of scope and scale. Combined with the light and colours which flood the stage or power through the empty circle, the visual imagery disorients and overwhelms: incredibly effectively.

Everything about the direction is methodical and tension inducing. The opening image is of desolation, the aftermath of conflict. A barren plain, hot and empty. Winds howling. Detritus, tossed aimlessly on the hot breath of the world, floating by. Then, Antigone. Crossing the Boeatian plain to meet her sister, her scarf flapping behind her, a moment of domesticity. The wheels of the tragedy then start grinding. As a viewer, the feeling is rather like walking on firm ground then mis-stepping into quicksand: the descent into horror is slow, unyielding and strangely hypnotic. A fascinating meditation on despair.

The core of the play is about duty, personal and public. Antigone wants to bury her dead brother even though he bore arms against Thebes because he did not want to share its rule with their other brother. With both brothers and her father dead, the crown goes to Antigone’s Uncle, Kreon, who is unprepared for rule but who comes with a clear view that the good of the state is more important that the wishes of an individual. Kreon orders that the bodies of the enemies of Thebes should not be given traditional, respectful burial rites; rather, he wants the corpses to rot in the harsh sun and feed the predators. Antigone wants proper rites to be given to her brother. The collision lines are established. The clock starts ticking. Inexorably.

Anne Carson’s spare translation of Sophokles work is very effective; evocative and poetic. The succinct prose suits the style of the production and there is no barrier between language and understanding. Some of the passages sound harsh, but that works perfectly well. Lucid and absorbing, Carson’s adaptation is eminently accessible.

Daniel Frietag uses sound very effectively, to unbalance, to jar, to create, maintain and release tension and to re-inforce the inexorable, slow march of horror. The scene where Antigone washed her dead brother’s body and sanctified it prior to burial was accompanied by remarkably haunting sound and music. It’s an astonishing moment of real impact.

Although the press materials focus on the presence of Juliette Binoche in the cast, in truth she is but one of a very gifted ensemble working together phenomenally well to breathe life into van Hove’s vision. As with his astonishing A View FromThe Bridge, van Hove uses the ensemble in various, ingenious ways, getting the best out of them all as a whole and allowing individuals to shine in their key moments.

Binoche has no trouble communicating the passion Antigone holds for ensuring her brother is given traditional rights. Fragility and earnestness are effortless elements of Binoche’s intensely felt (and conveyed) characterisation. She takes the dialogue to heart: “self-regarding rage” bursts from her like shrapnel fire, erratically, uncontrolled, shattering the quiet. There is clear purpose to her ferocious outpourings: in those moments, she represents civil disobedience at its most personal.

On the other hand, Patrick O’Kane’s Kreon embodies the notion of state supremacy; he believes that the needs of the greater good must take precedence over individual needs or concerns. Imperious, smiling, still, making decisions but not listening, O’Kane is the epitome of the notion of the ideal modern politician. He gives a restrained performance of misjudged authority – the perfect Ying to Binoche’s Yang.

There is not a weak link in the cast of eight. Obi Abili finds surprising humour in his exchanges as the guard whose message might get him killed; Kirsty Bushell has never been better than she is here as Antigone’s dispassionate sister, Ismene, where every word, pause and look is carefully, superbly measured; Finbar Lynch is especially impressive as the blind seer, Teiresias, who can see clearly what Kreon cannot contemplate, and he makes exceptional use of his stentorian tones; and Kathryn Pogson is all wide-eyed, wretched wonder as Eurydike. Each contributes ably to the shared duties as the Chorus, with Lynch and Pogson especially impressive. Toby Gordon never speaks but his contribution, nevertheless, is significant.

For me, though, the performance which stood slightly ahead of the rest came from Samuel Edward-Cook as Haimon, son to Kreon and affianced to Antigone. Because of his situation, his allegiances, Haimon must see both sides of the central debate and he tries very hard to reconcile the parties. He fails, and the consequences are devastating for all. The passion that Edward-Cook weaves into his performance is remarkable; from his little-boy hugs with his father to his desperate kiss with Antigone, he displays an extraordinary range of emotions, motivations and foibles. The speech to his father about compromise is the highlight of the evening.

This is a vibrant and completely absorbing take on a classic from the Ancient Greek repertoire. The cast excels under van Hove’s centred, firm vision and all aspects of the production blend to triumphant results. It will leave you pondering the relationship between power and the individual, the state and tradition. And considering how prescient Sophokles was about the present state of politics all those centuries ago.

Antigone runs at the Barbican until March 28, 2015

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