ANTIGONE Barbican, WC2

ANCIENT GRIEF, A TERRIBLE BEAUTY

There are some trademarks here: shaven heads, bare feet, bleak staging, immense and timeless dooms and subtle, insistent soundscape. Ivo van Hove, the Belgian director from Toneelgroep Amsterdam, stunned us lately with Arthur Miller’s A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, and there is a family resemblance to that “perverse purity” in this Sophoclean tragedy , with Juliette Binoche at its heart striding stark with grief .

It is that quality which van Hove’s production most expresses: the grief of Oedipus’ orphaned daughter, desperate for her dead warring brothers and defiantly burying Polyneikes, the reflected sorrow of her sister, Ismene, at her headlong rush towards death; the grief too of King Kreon, blinded by stubborn realpolitic – “the sacrilege that I called public policy” when his own son and wife sink beneath the same dust. The production is spare, slow-paced, mesmerizing, almost incantatory with Anne Carson’s text and Daniel Freitag’s echoing insistent score: Binoche moves with beautiful, unsettling sorrow: at one point her ritual tending and burying of the brother’s dead body is beyond moving.

Yet it is a difficult tone to sustain for a hundred minutes, especially in the Barbican theatre, a space which somehow always manages to feel both cavernous and claustrophobic. Van Hove’s great View from the Bridge was born in the breathing, warm, organic, almost makeshift atmosphere of the Young Vic: the starkness there was a contrast, not so overpowering. And some may find this re-telling slow, underpowered, perhaps less engaging than Polly Findlay’s recent, more detailed production of Sophocles’ tragedy at the Olivier.

For me, though, it struck home: the way the grief crackled through it, the unemphatic message of the courtiers being in modern business-dress, the casual vernacular chorus acting as advisers and as quietly horrorstruck onlookers, the gentle angry power of Binoche. And, not least, Patrick O’Kane’s strong Kreon and a wonderful Queen Eurydike from Kathryn Pogson. There is a moment when suddenly the dead Antigone strolls to the stage’s edge and delivers lines belonging to the messenger, her accent suddenly a little French for the first time: “Citizens…” she calls us, and the moment feels thrillingly direct. A message from the deep long past, a dead hand reaching out in warning and resignation. “Fortunate, unfortunate..no seer can see what’s ahead”.

box office: barbican.org.uk to 28 March
Then touring Europe; BBC filming it for BBC4 later in the year
rating four 4 Meece Rating

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