Antigone is going on to the Barbican’s partners and co-producers in Luxembourg, Paris, Amsterdam, Germany and Edinburgh. It’s going to be televised by the BBC – and then it’s going on to a bigger European and US tour. It’s a technical feat on a huge stage, and with two big names at its centre, Juliette Binoche and Ivo van Hove, both of whom are hugely in evidence throughout, but neither with the startling brilliance I hoped for.
Antigone is made a ghost-like presence, permeating the narrative in mourning black from the very beginning of the play and taking on sections of descriptions from both of the play’s Messengers. I am told that this is not unheard of, but it was new to me. Binoche is impressive in the detail of her performance, even if her presence and voice do not quite agitate the back wall of the Barbican. She comes into her own, too late and too briefly, once she is walled-up, with the centre stage to herself, and all the best lines: “I’m alone on my insides / and I go down to death though I am still alive”. Her fingers caress a sliver of belly as she recalls “Kreon calls it criminal / he says I like to fondle strange and reckless things / oh beloved brother” and the incestuous family history of the daughter of Oedipus seems to weigh heavy on her midriff. Earlier the precision of her burial ritual is similarly exquisite – meticulously rubbing oil and dirt across a prone Toby Gordon. The tenderness and sexuality that ran through van Hove’s A View from the Bridge, insistent and irreducible are here again – with Kreon (Patrick O’Kane) taking a moment to kiss Antigone’s forehead or passionately embrace his son Haimon. And whether intentional of not, the face mics rustle and double those moments of closeness, playing in and around the clicks and bass of Daniel Frietag’s powerful sound design and prickling the hairs of the back of the neck with their intimacy.
But for all the precision in evidence, the conceptual force of Antigone feels diffused and underwhelming, and before and after my very brief snooze (radical honesty, people) I found myself daydreaming not of the Antigone in front of me, but the Jodie Whittaker performance in Polly Findlay’s 2012 production for the National Theatre’s Olivier stage. The technical feat of the massive projections by Tal Yarden on the back wall, situating the production in the harsh dry heat of the desert and on the streets of a metropolis carries almost no semantic or atmospheric weight to justify the man-hours it must have taken to erect. The three metre diameter (I’m guessing) disc that is flown out to uneclipse and reeclipse a giant watching sun-light is a centrepiece almost dwarfed by the sheer width of the stage, and has little to evoke but the classical unities which this production repeatedly and reasonably breaks. (In any case, to make another Olivier comparison, there hasn’t been a better design reference to those unities than Paul Brown’s single revolution of the palace gates in Jonathan Kent’s 2008 Oedipus.)
Anne Carson’s adaptation, which I have had a better look at away from the auditorium, is incredibly exciting to read: fully felt and academically rigorous. However in performance it feels too familiar, making a show of itself only in a few jarring vocabulary choices, and a particular overuse of the word ‘weird’. Familiar too are the chorus, who take on all the other roles in the play between them, and who reminded me of nothing so much as the staffers of The West Wing, nestled amongst dark minimalist office furniture, watching their Bartlett/Kreon nervous for his success but with a keen sense of their impotence.
Finally, I felt here more than I ever have watching Antigone that Kreon steals the tragedy from the passionate and determined sister, perhaps because no real state was invoked by the chorus/Kreon relationship, and therefore the weight of argument seemed to pull in favour of Antigone’s timeless laws rather than in Kreon’s political needs. A degree of ungrounding freed A View from the Bridge, but Antigone needs more situating than this production is willing to provide.