An Academy Award-winning actress, an Olivier-nominated director, and a classic Sophocles tragedy: it’s easy to see how the teaming of Juliette Binoche and Ivo van Hove in Antigone was anticipated as a fusion of theatrical genius. But while this production at the Barbican Theatre sets off with the promise of originality, it does not deliver the captivating whole one might have hoped for.
Like most Greek tragedies, Antigone is a play about ruthless passion, encompassing themes of death, blood loyalty, and the conflict between public duty and personal will. Creon, the new ruler of Thebes, orders that Antigone’s brother be left unburied on the battlefield after taking opposite sides in the civil war. In order to honour her familial obligations, however, the eponymous character (Oedipus’s daughter) defies society’s laws by secretly burying her sibling. Her crime sees her sentenced to death, but determined to be the master of her own fate as well, Antigone takes her own life first.
In spite of the play’s potential for emotional immersion and a cathartic climax, this production simply fails to engage. Juliette Binoche may exude a suitably dramatic stage presence as the tragic heroine, but her self-casting in this play is misguided. As though over-compensating for a lack of hold on her audience – theatre is a very different medium to film – Binoche’s ruthless defiance of Patrick O’Kane’s oppressive Creon is conveyed through angry shouting, though volume is no substitute for intensity of feeling.
What does work effectively is the way in which the main cast each take on the role of chorus in turn, rotating eerily around the main action. There is a performative, almost choreographed precision to Ivo van Hove’s direction and this gives the play a much-needed pensive quality. Kirsty Bushell and Kathryn Pogson, who also play Ismene and Eurydike, respectively, possess an enchanting authority that is elsewhere lacking.
The set is intriguingly bare, stripped down to the essential components of existence: against the wall, a round disc circulates to give the illusion of a rising and setting sun; a grave-like panel in the floor carries bodies in and off the stage; the winds of time blow out of the wings. But this highly stylised aesthetic, with all its potential to awaken this age-old tragedy, does little other than accentuate the hollowness of the drama itself.
‘Many things strange, terrible, wondrous, clever’ muses one of the Chorus in a rare moment of enigmatic power. Unfortunately the play fails to strike any of these notes, or at least not with great consistency. One walks out of the theatre as detached from the characters and the action as the next night’s audience walking in.