WhatsOnStage Logo

Antigone (Barbican Theatre)

Ivo van Hove's production starring Juliette Binoche falls a little flat

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Juliette Binoche as Antigone
© Jan Versweyveld

After the down and dirty club land rumble of Roy Williams's re-write of Sophocles' tragedy at Stratford East, here comes the big international touring prestige version starring Juliette Binoche and a clutch of fine Irish and British actors directed by man of the moment Ivo van Hove.

It starts so well, and so portentously, with Binoche walking across the abstract veld into a wind machine, defying the elements and the decree of her uncle, Creon (Patrick O'Kane), not to bury the corpse of her "traitorous" brother Polynices. Family before fatwah, heart before heroics, values before victory, that sort of thing.

While van Hove – whose three visits to the Barbican with his Toneelgroep of Amsterdam have been imperishable highlights of the past few years – has returned Arthur Miller's domestic and social tragedy A View from the Bridge to its stark Greek tragedy origins, he here attempts to have his Attic cake and eat it: ancient hubris with modern humanity.

It doesn't work, not least because the vocal attributes of the cast – and Binoche seems to have lost whatever theatre voice she had before – are tinged with a horrid membrane of amplification and the stately motion of the actors around the stage is not matched by any uprush of demonic power or beauty, though I quite liked Kathryn Pogson's choric speech about Eros glowing on young girls' eyelids.

There are many such flashes in Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson's fierce and unpretentious translation. But as the lead characters (Kirsty Bushell is a tremulous Ismene, Finbar Lynch a dour Tiresias) all play the Chorus, too, the essential structural, antiphonal aspect of Greek tragedy is traduced. Binoche certainly "acts" the part even if she doesn't speak it very well.

Still, these are early days in a ten month tour, and the show could be transformed in a more intimate venue. I'm loath to compare this ad hoc company to the superb ensemble van Hove has at home base but I can't help feeling that the Edinburgh Festival, where Antigone heads the programme in August, should have been treated to Toneelgroep before this oddly compiled project.

The show ends with a welcome blast of Velvet Underground's "Heroine" ("I'm waiting for my man") which sums up the duality of suffering: Creon is shaken up and changed by the tragedy that overtakes him and his son Haemon (Samuel Edward-Cook), Antigone's fiancé, while the engine of the play, and its centre, is Antigone's tunnel vision anger just as O'Kane outlines, if not exactly embodies, a political leader in meltdown.

Van Hove and designer Jan Versweyweld place Binoche on a proscenium-wide platform in a series of indefinite vistas backed with fuzzy videos of "ordinary people" – this trite use of film by such a master of mixing theatre and video in, especially, The Antonioni Project, is almost the biggest disappointment of all – and a downstage "down time" area of sofas, book-cases, shelves of CDs and DVDs.

The best visual touch is the waning and waxing moon that translates into the fatal cavern though, again, the theatre of the device is ruined by the banal use of filmic close-up at the end, and an over-strident reference to the embalmed Russian dissident recently shot by the Kremlin - well, near the Kremlin - and celebrated by thousands on the streets. Antigone needs no such cheap parallel examples. It would be - it is - more powerful, more moving, more reverberate on its own and in the flesh, dead or alive.

Antigone runs at the Barbican Theatre until 28 March 2015 before touring internationally. It will be screened on BBC Four in the Spring