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The Theatreguide.London Review

Antigone
Barbican Theatre  March 2015

Fresh from his triumph with A View From The Bridge, director Ivo van Hove presents a powerful version of Sophocles' tragedy that manages remarkably to be both epic and human in scale. 

A reminder: when King Kreon orders that his traitor nephew's body receive the ultimate insult of being left unburied, the lad's sister Antigone gives it a ritual burial anyway, knowing that her uncle will not hesitate in having her executed for the crime. 

I have seen productions that more directly underlined the conflict between law and a higher morality, or that explored the complexities and ambiguities in Antigone's character. 

But I have never encountered one that was so filled from the start with foreboding and the sense that the characters were all marching toward a predetermined and inevitable doom. 

Nor have I seen a director and cast more able to convert the rather formal speech-making of Sophocles' text into natural and even intimate conversations that fully bring out the humanity of the characters and the human cost of their clashes. 

When Kreon's son Haimon tries to convince his father not to be so hard-headed in enforcing the law, we feel the pain and courage of the young man finding himself in the uncomfortable position of disagreeing with the elder, and when the prophet Teiresias warns of doom to come it is in the tones of an old family friend concerned for those he loves. 

Even the five members of the Chorus only speak one at a time, so that every Chorus scene becomes a quiet conversation between Kreon or Antigone and one close friend. (The Chorus members also take turns playing Everyone Else, stepping into a scene to become Haimon, a Guard, or some other character before blending seamlessly back into anonymity.) 

And yet throughout we never lose the sense that a tragic ending is coming – this is, after all, the house of Oedipus – and the more human and touching each encounter becomes the more painful is the awareness of their doom. 

In creating and sustaining this double vision and sense of inexorable forward movement, van Hove is assisted powerfully by Jan Versweyweld's design, an empty space dominated by a piercingly burning sun, and particularly by hypnotically throbbing music by Daniel Freitag. 

Anne Carson's translation has moments of poetic splendour, but too often shatters its own spell with infelicities like 'I'm off the hook' and 'Get a move on'. 

The nominal star of the production is Juliette Binoche, whose Antigone is unwavering and dignified even in her most hysterical moments. But Binoche is somewhat limited by the one-note characterisation she's been given to play, and it is Patrick O'Kane's Kreon who dominates the evening as his character is constantly tested and ultimately forced to change. 

Samuel Edward-Cooke movingly captures the courage and torment of Haimon and Finbar Lynch the concern and frustration of Teiresias. 

There is no such thing as an ultimate production of any great drama, and there are things here, like the conversational playing, that are no doubt violations of Sophocles' intentions. But I can't think of a production of any Greek tragedy that so completely translated it into modern theatrical forms that can give us something like the experience the play's first audiences had.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - Antigone  - Barbican Theatre 2015  
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