Theatre review: Antigone, Barbican

Obi Abili, Juliette Binoche and Patrick O'Kane performing in Antigone. Photograph: Jan Versweyveld/HO/EPAFresh from his success in the director’s chair of the Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge – now triumphantly transferred to the West End – director Ivo van Hove transfers his skills to the Barbican’s adaptation of Sophokles’ Antigone.

Swapping a 20th century tragedy for one written in 441BC van Hove’s employs many of his directionally flourishes that worked so well in Arthur Miller’s tale to this Classical text, but with far less success. The stark staging that allows actors to casually sit and the loud soundtrack that made such an impact in A View from the Bridge, both seem out of place in Antigone, as if the stage notes had got muddled with another, far punchier, production.

If nothing else, van Hove still has the story which of course ticks all the Greek tragedy boxes, including fratricide, despotic rulers and amusing messengers. Antigone’s life was probably never destined to be great, after all as the daughter of Oedipus, her mother – Jocasta – is also her grandmother. If that wasn’t enough, her brothers – fighting for opposing sides – kill each other in fighting to rule. The new ruler, Creon, declares that Etecoles – whose death meant he got to be king – will be honoured while his brother, Polyneices, will be left to rot where he fell. Reasonably, Creon decrees that anyone attempting to bury Polyneices will be killed. Antigone, no stranger to family drama, is determined to defy the rules and give her brother the send off he deserves. Her sister, Ismene, isn’t very keen on the idea and the play opens with a sisterly spat that sees them fall out for ever. All alone in the world, Antigone, is determined to put blood-ties before her own survival.

I was gripped by the story, my knowledge of Greek theatre is poor, but on this occasion my ignorance served me well as Anne Carson’s retelling of Sophokles’ ancient tale was probably the highlight. The opening scene, when Juliette Binoche’s black clad Antigone walks out onto a sandstorm for her confrontation with Kirsty Bushell’s secretarial-like Ismane is wonderfully dramatic and evocative. But once the wind machine was turned down, the production seemed to lose the wind from its sails.

For a genre that is famously tense with emotion, this production of a Greek classic, was rather cold and lacking in spirit; it was difficult to believe these characters would have enough passion to disobey an over zealous traffic warden who’d put a parking ticket on their chariot, let alone their leader at pain of death. The lack of connection, I think, can be partly explained by the play being visually contemporary, but there being no effort made to make the story relevant to modern day audiences. I wasn’t sure whether we were meant to be understanding this from an ancient Greek point of view (never easy at the best of times) or from a 21st century mindset where our references would have been different.

Binoche as Antigone gave a very considered performance, but whether this is a curse of the do-gooding daughter role (see also King Lear’s Cordelia) was a little dull. In fact few of the performances were loaded with personality, Obi Abili as the guard was a brilliant exception, his comic timing bringing a welcome shot of humour in a production that was otherwise a little one note.

Antigone | Barbican Centre | Until 28 March 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

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