This review is of 'Antigone's run at London's Barbican Centre in March
If Belgian super-director Ivo van Hove had succeeded in immediately following up his epochal production of ‘A View from the Bridge’ with a new show of equal or greater brilliance, I think the rest of the theatre world would have had to get together to decide whether to either declare him our new god or have him done for witchcraft.
As it turns out, his ‘Antigone’ isn’t quite up there, though certainly it’s no less interesting.
Some might feel differently, though, because what really marks out Van Hove’s production of Sophocles’s tragedy is hypnotic calm. Under beautiful, shimmering projections, constant, calming music and a huge orb that transforms from sun to moon, the cast – led by film star Juliette Binoche as Antigone and Patrick O’Kane as Creon – do a lot of talking.
‘Antigone’ is the story of a woman who insists upon burying her late brother Polyneikes in observance of religious tradition, and in defiance of her uncle, King Creon, narked at the dead man for invading his city, Thebes. In most productions, the histrionics go up to 11 immediately, but here the most gorgeous thing happens when Creon discovers what his niece has been up to: they sit down and have a weary hug. And they chat: Van Hove’s Thebes is like a woven tapestry or a still pond, calm and beautiful, everyone talking in a measured hush, everything in its right place.
That is, until Antigone refuses to be reabsorbed into the calm: she disrupts the weave, ripples the pond; Creon becomes equally incensed. The play has always been about the clash between man’s physical and spiritual obligations, but post-Charlie Hebdo, Van Hove’s production certainly resonates: two people who get along, but who are driven to fanaticism because they refuse to accommodate each other’s world view. He doesn’t respect her religious beliefs, she has no room for his pragmatism.
Van Hove pretty much nails the big picture, but it’s the details that feel lacking. Though Binoche and O’Kane let rip a little, they’re ultimately subsumed by the production, and elsewhere the uniformly measured performances give the night a sense of frictionless smoothness. Though Anne Carson’s poetic new adaptation is cleverly tooled to deliver less melodrama than usual, the production is very hard to invest in emotionally, to care about the characters over the themes, and as such the ending is a shade bathetic. Worth your while, but it’s ironic, considering the play, that it feels like such a triumph of the head over the heart.