Following the mega-success of The View from the Bridge – the play everyone is talking about, the play you’d want to sell a relative to get tickets to – the powerhouse team that is Ivo van Hove and designer Jan Versweyweld return and stamp another innovative mark on theatre in Anne Carson’s new adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone, starring Juliette Binoche at the Barbican. With their characteristic spice of minimalistic yet intriguing staging, the fight against authority and the cry for justice roaring in Antigone has a new life of its own in this bold new visual world for the ancient tragedy.
The design is mesmeric – intriguing in its simplicity, a coldness in the dark with the beauty of a dry, uncontrollable desert blazing on a large backdrop projection. Versweyweld’s design transports us to a world of strictness, persistence in obeying the rules and getting everything right. Neat. Lifeless. Antigone is a play about power and its price, what the consequences of stubbornness and dictatorship are and how we deal with authority. Everything has a price and the gods never forget.
The children of Oedipus suffer his curse and are forced to live in shame. His two sons kill each other in a battle for Thebes, and Kreon, the new king and their uncle, decides that only one of them – Eteokles, who fought for Thebes – shall have a proper burial. Polyneikes, the traitor, is left to rot in the sun and be eaten by dogs, something that goes against the burial laws of ancient Greece. Anyone who tries to give him a decent burial will be executed. Antigone, his sister, defies her uncle’s law and buries her brother for dignity and to honour the gods. A decision that leads to Kreon’s wrath and the final fall of the house of Oedipus.
Ivo van Hove’s Antigone has a strange, water-like rhythm to it throughout, a calm and almost unaffected flow which at times is icily cold and penetrating, at times monotonous and a halt to the dramatic curve and intensity of Sophocles’s play. The translation is witty, modern in its tone and clarity, but an ancient pulse lies underneath and gives it its life-blood and tragic urgency.
Juliette Binoche shows great passion as Antigone. She shows a softer, more troubled and lost side to the character, and as she meets her fate we feel her fading away into madness, rather than acceptance. Patrick O’Kane’s Kreon is terrifyingly fighting inner demons and deeply obsessed with his own appearance – he is determined to come across as a powerful, stable and wise leader despite his very core being insecure and his humanity betrays his choices. The struggle is electrifying to watch and deeply concerning, and with Binoche’s certainty and honesty, the air between them feels like a warzone.
The problem with staging ancient Greek dramas today is always the chorus – how do you create a sense of unity, a voice linking spectators and performers, a commentator of passion and intellect, without alienating a modern audience? Often the chorus disappears entirely, split into single voices and characters and not a collective unison. This is the case with Antigone, and at times it works brilliantly – the subjects of Kreon are everywhere, hiding in all corners, spying on everyone and ready to give their advice. However we lose the otherworldly, thrilling mystery of the unified chorus, the song and movement so essential to the ancient tragedies. Here it becomes almost too realistic, stripped off its roots. We feel a bit lost as characters morph in and out of the chorus, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who and whose side they’re on.
Antigone is an incredibly powerful and important play – it has resonated in any time it’s been set as its universal struggle with authority and justice is something we will always recognise as part of the human condition. This production finds the crisp, cold reality and corruption of Kreon’s world – highlighted by the incredible sound design by Daniel Freitag – but loses some of the warmth and passion of Antigone’s honour and action. The visual life is stunning and harrowing with the beautiful film sequences throughout, though the final film and image is a bit cliché and disappointing. Ivo van Hove is the director to follow though, and his scenic skill never fails.
Antigone is playing at the Barbican until 28 March. For tickets and more information, see the Barbican website.