Irresistible Forces and Immovable Objects
It’s been quite the year for Greek tragedy on the London stage, with the National Theatre’s ‘Medea’ last summer and the Old Vic’s ‘Electra’ running through the autumn. And now, pausing at the Barbican for a month on an 8-month tour that started in Luxembourg and will end in Washington, there has been Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’, with Juliet Binoche in the title role.
First things first: all of the actors in the production are excellent. Binoche, like Helen McCrory’s Medea and Kristen Scott-Thomas’ Electra, exudes an unsettling intensity, both utterly convinced of the rightness of her cause and prepared to go to any lengths in pursuit of it. Her brother’s unburied body is not just a personal insult but an offence against divine order, and as her opening scene with her sister Ismene shows, she will think nothing of her own life if it means the chance to put things right. Patrick O’Kane’s Kreon, in contrast, is a man desperately trying to restore a semblance of order to a city (Thebes) riven by a civil war that has claimed the lives of the two warring brothers Eteokles and Polyneikes whose rivalry fuelled it. Conscious that the war’s end requires a hero and a villain he orders the one, Eteokles to be buried with full rites while the other left above ground for the birds to devour.
As with all Greek tragedies, the action unfolding on stage is only the continuation of a back-story that the audience knows but hasn’t seen. We see, in ninety intense minutes, events coming to a crisis: the grief-stricken sister demanding justice not from those in positions of human authority but from a heaven both implacable and remote. There is no ending that will permit both Antigone and Kreon to be satisfied, and with both so convinced of their ‘rightness’ death is inevitable. As with other tragedies, the marvel is perhaps that we should care so much about the events unfolding before us.
In this modern staging (in terms of costume and set design) the Greek drama remains as urgent as ever. Indeed, we may find ourselves thinking of the unburied victims of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 last year, or the unmarked graves of the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ killers as reminders of how emotive these issues still are. At times the slow-pacing of each scene becomes ritual, reminding us that this is not solely an exploration of political expediency but of some of the deepest concerns that any society faces.
And with Antigone dead (my apologies for the spoiler!) it seems fitting that the close of the play focuses on Kreon: the ‘realpolitik’ ruler whose sense of ‘right’ and obstinate pursuit of it cost not only Antigone’s life but those of his wife and sons as well. Inflexible in the face of forces he barely understands, he ends the play reduced to a hunched grief-stricken figure on an empty stage as the slow but insistent introduction of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ plays in the background. Divine justice may have been served, but humans are left as small as ever, their pretensions to moral and political authority exposed by the cold force of the gods’ redressing of the balance. As Kreon surveys the desolation of his city and his life Lou Reed’s delivery of the line “And I guess but I just don’t know” has rarely sounded more appropriate.