There’s nothing wrong with Ivo van Hove’s Antigone. Far from it. It is yet another piece from a theatrical master craftsman with every single directorial decision in it clearly imbued with meaning. The overall production is indeed in many ways underwhelming, but this might be a result of the way in which this particular international project was produced, rather than the way in which it was directed. It is not my intention here to evaluate or speculate on the reasons of its success or failure. Instead I’d like to offer another contribution to what is becoming a series of responses I have made to van Hove’s work in Exeunt before – here and here – and this time I’m prompted by the news that BBC4 is programming this theatre production into its schedule.
I must admit I was slightly worried about the encounter between a potential TV viewer and the Belgian director even before seeing the show. I want it to succeed because I’d like to see theatre become part of the regular TV programming and therefore part of the public conversation more. But even if we take the BBC4 viewer’s sophisticated taste and potential predilection for culture into consideration, the question arises as to how van Hove’s directorial approach to theatre could ever translate to British television at all? The decision to screen this particular piece must to some extent be influenced by the fact that the French screen siren Juliette Binoche appears in the lead, and no doubt the camera will love Binoche as usual, and probably more so, sadly, than the theatre audience seems to have done on this occasion.
The problem is theatre and TV, despite their brief love affair in the mid- twentieth century, have grown apart – and rightly so. TV has increasingly become interested in reality, theatre has increasingly become interested in metaphor. (Good theatre has, at least, and I consider van Hove to be a maker of good theatre.) This particular production will be screened as part of a series about ancient Greece thus possibly putting it at risk of being judged against what the classics-enthusiasts or readers of the play might have expected.
That too is a problematic choice, in my view. What we need is an altogether new form for a successful encounter between theatre and TV (just think how exciting that could be!), or for a start, at least, it would help to see this production in the context of a series about theatre-making itself. I’ll elaborate. In the UK, theatre parted ways with TV at the point at which sets were still filmic and characters were conceived in terms of psychological realism. Those who have stopped going to the theatre imagine it to be an inferior version of what film or TV can do better. Additionally, in the UK, theatre has often been seen as an elitist endeavour (the pastime of the moneyed classes) and therefore slightly out of place in the most popular of the media – the TV. Van Hove’s Antigone is not only a piece of theatre being brought onto the TV screens, it is also a piece of theatre made by a director from another cultural space where, due to a number of political and economic factors, theatre has a different (less elitist) level of social significance and certainly a different tradition of meaning-making at its core.
Van Hove’s production is therefore entirely based on a metaphorical use of the set and characters, and his characteristically non-British method of reading the play for its inner mechanics rather than the words on the page is completely contingent on this choice. Bride-to-be Antigone, for example, is played by a 50-year old actress; her uncle and father-in-law-to-be, Kreon, by an actor of the same age. This is because the director is not interested in a realistic representation of characters but in what the actor can bring to the portrayal of the role. Each character is further conceived as a function of a central thematic investigation that the director (in collaboration with dramaturg Peter von Kraaij) is pursuing through staging the play. Designer Jan Versweyweld has created a conceptually sophisticated and visually simple platform (with a hydraulic opening for a grave), against a backdrop used for the show’s own film projections (with a cut out sun in the centre). The platform is connected with the backdrop through a single bridge facilitating a sense of limited connectedness between the private and the public as well as moments of precariousness (the climax point, for example, when Kreon is confronted by Teiresias). Nestled underneath the platform are items of furniture suggesting a comfortable office environment, perhaps an HQ of sorts. The set design is ultimately an installation within which the central conflicting forces of the play itself play out.
Sophocles’ play is famously about a conflict between two systems of values. Kreon, a new ruler, attempts to build his authority by privileging duty over love or familial obligation – he bans the burial of nephew Polyneikes as punishment for his insurrection against the city-state of Thebes. Antigone, on the other hand, believing it is more important to honour the ancient rites of burial for all than arbitrary man-made laws, determines to defy Kreon’s authority. Sophocles adds a layer of complication in having Antigone engaged to Kreon’s son Haimon and van Hove capitalises on this to give us an exquisitely visceral vignette between Patrick O’Kane’s combustible Kreon and Samuel Edward-Cook’s humble yet heroic negotiator Haimon. In the choice between love and duty, Haimon, in other words, aims for a synthesis of both.
Though potentially confusing within the realist paradigm of TV, doubling of characters is common in theatre and often pursued for the pragmatic reasons of keeping the overall cast size down. Van Hove’s decision to make all of the individual characters except Kreon, and arguably Antigone, members of the chorus is however part of the dramaturgical design of the piece too. The individual vices and virtues of the protagonists are presented as being contained within all of us and, conversely, the crowd is presented as being a heterogenous collection of individuals rather than an anonymous mass. The lines chorus members speak are often allocated in such a way that they are complementary with the individual character-actor’s overall function in thepiece. Mostly positioned in the liminal space between the auditorium and the central platform, the chorus is indicative of our potential participation in the proceedings too (at one point Binoche, following Antigone’s death, descends into this space, and perching at the edge of the stage, now one of the chorus members herself, intimates her innermost thoughts to us). Daniel Freitag’s hypnotic score accompanies almost all of the performance, and this too is intended as a community-building device. The question is, can any of this ever work across the ‘cold medium’ of a TV screen?
This production has also left many of the British theatre critics cold. Some, like Paul Taylor of the Independent have attributed it to the cumulative effect of the directorial choices. Others seem to have expected a more accomplished, more moving performance from the leading star. But the point is, this is not a piece of theatre intended to appeal to the sentiment. Because it sets out from the premise, known also to the ancient Greeks, that we go to the theatre to think and deliberate. Its unique strength is contained in the clarity with which it makes its own final statement on the basis of carefully dissecting the central arguments of Sophocles’ play (rendered for this occasion by Canadian poet Anne Carson). To me this statement became clear in the silence of the final moments just before the curtain call with the chorus members suddenly – for the first time – busying themselves at their office desks and Kreon writhing in agony on his pedestal of authority. This is essentially a lament about the loss of empathy in our corporatised 21st century world. But will the TV viewer, in the comfort of his or her home, stay tuned for long enough to get it?
Ivo van Hove’s Antigone is at the Barbican from 4th-28th March 2015.
Exeunt’s review of Antigone.
Duška Radosavljević on the dramaturgy of A View From The Bridge.