Antigone**** (Barbican Theatre)

Posted: March 18, 2015 in Theatre

antigoneSuch is the reputation of Belgian director Ivo van Hove, after last year’s phenomenal success at the Young Vic, that his name overshadows the play’s title on tickets for this production and the appearance of an Oscar winner in the title role is not even mentioned. There are similarities between this and A View from the Bridge – stylised, minimalist staging, solemn music playing in the background, very deliberate variations in the pace and power of the performances – but, when applied to a tragedy from ancient Greece, these techniques do not have quite the same shock effect as with relatively modern Brooklyn. Van Hove and his partner, set and lighting designer Jan Versweyweld, struggle a little in grappling with the Barbican’s unreasonably wide stage – a backing screen generally suggests a wilderness, dominated by a large central sun, and is used for silhouettes and projections (not always discernible) – but too often the actors are compressed, standing or sitting in a line on a thin, lowered strip front of stage which is furnished to suggest a modern office. It is a set-up which favours the epic more that the intimate and distances the audience rather than draws it into the drama. However, leaving aside these reservations, this modern dress production is always absorbing and often stunning. Sophokles’ play tells of the determination of Antigone (Juliette Binoche) to get a decent burial for a brother who died in combat, contrary to an edict issued by the Theban ruler Kreon (Patrick O’Kane). Waif-like and seemingly ageless, Binoche is a luminous presence and she portrays Antigone’s anguish with real passion; however the play, at least in this translation by Anne Carson, gives her very little to get her teeth into and the dominant performance is that of O’Kane. The easy option could have been to have made Kreon a vicious megalomaniac, but here we have a businessman in a designer suit who, having been thrust into a position of power, is walking the thin line between anarchy and tyranny, recognising his own mistakes but feeling unable to retract for fear of looking weak. By making Kreon a modern Everyman, the play’s relevance to 21st Century politics is brought into sharp focus. Yet, for all this production’s epic sweep, there are occasional moments of shattering intimacy – Kreon’s son Haimon (Samuel Edward-Cook), betrothed to the doomed Antigone, takes his own life, resting his head on his father’s shoulder and simply falling asleep. With strong support from Finbar Lynch, Kirsty Bushell and Kathryn Pogson, all in specific roles and as chorus, this is a pan-European effort which oozes quality. Ancient Greece still has much to say to the rest of us; it would be nice if someone could now sort out modern Greece.

Performance date: 17 March 2015

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