I have to admit here at the beginning of this review that, although I was aware of the play Antigone by Sophocles, I was far from familiar with the work and my main reason for going to see this performance was not to miss the chance to see Juliette Binoche performing on stage in Edinburgh. I suspect a few other members of the audience had the same reason for being here tonight too.
It is not every day that you get to see someone who has both a highly respected film career and an equally respected stage career perform one of the great classical roles. Knowing Juliette Binoche mostly from films such as “Chocolat”, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and the “Trois Colours” trilogy (to name only a few), I was curious to see how Juliette would interpret the role of the doomed Antigone.
At its heart, the plot is fairly simple. After a bitter civil war, the two brothers who have fought it are dead by their own hand and the victorious King Kreon has decreed that one brother be given a hero’s funeral while the other be branded a traitor and be given no burial but left where he has fallen on the battlefield to rot. Antigone (sister of the two brothers) defies this decree and gives her fallen brother a burial knowing full well what the consequences of her actions would be. This is of course a very simplistic view of this work as it is much more than just this and raises so many issues that are just as relevant today as when it was written nearly 2,500 years ago.
I have not seen this work performed on stage before, so unlike some other reviewers I have nothing to compare the performances against.
From the moment Antigone (Juliette Binoche) walks onto the stage to greet her sister Ismene (Kirsty Bushell) at the end of the war, the first thing you notice is that this is not a costume drama. Everyone is in contemporary clothes, and no one is in character make-up (an old oracle does not look old for example). We are also on a very minimalist set (set and lighting by Jan Versweyveld) that is pretty much a rising sun to start the day (and later a setting sun to close it) set against a blank backdrop that allows for some interesting video throughout the work. Minimalistic sets are very hard to do properly and this is one of the best I have seen on stage.
The course of action Antigone sets herself on from the very few opening lines do give Juliette Binoche only one doomed direction to go in and that does limit the range of performance that can be given a bit, but the performance is strong and powerful. Juliette also has that rare ability that only very good performers have, and that is to somehow do an awful lot when actually doing or saying nothing at all. Juliette Binoche knows not only how to interpret words but also how to use silence. That ability to display emotion by just being on stage is essential to this role – particularly in an older and smaller theatre like The King’s where the audience are very close to you as a performer.
Kirsty Bushell as Ismene gives us a stark contrast between the two sisters. While one will risk all for her beliefs, the other is accepting of the burial decree and her lack of ability to change it.
Patrick O’Kane as King Kreon is outstanding in this role and his portrayal of the totalitarian ruler who pays the price for his arrogance is a joy to watch. Kreon decrees that Antigone go to the underworld alive as a fitting punishment for trying to allow her brother to go there dead, and The Gods it seems punish him severely for this arrogance.
There are other strong performances from our small cast – Guard (Obi Abili), Haimon (Samuel Edward-Cook), Teiresias (Finbar Lynch) and Eurydike (Kathryn Pogson).
Direction of this production is by Ivo Van Hove and there are many elements working here on stage that make this into a very good production. It is very easy at times when you are pulled into this work by the actors and the words to miss what is happening on the video backgrounds. The set itself is also deceptive. The front part seems to be set in a very smart office maybe around the 1970s/1980s. At the end we have little things easily missed such as the old oracle Teiresias typing up events on an old black typewriter and Eurydike (wife of Kreon) editing an old film reel on an editor (editing her life maybe).
One of the little puzzles running through this work is the use at times and particularly at the end of Lou Reed/ The Velvet Underground song “Heroin”. I am not too sure of the relevance of this. Could it be the “Velvet Underground” that Antigone is soon to descend into? Is the song used to highlight the futility of things, or is it also in part a word play on Heroin/Heroine?...a puzzle that I do not have the answer to.
This work is a new translation by Anne Carson, but the core of this work is still there raising issues of family loyalty, state loyalty, personal beliefs, totalitarian power, respect for the dead and many other things that are still relevant today. Taking the technical aspects of this production away, this audience could easily have been the original intended one as the basic human condition has not changed in over 2,000 years.
The ancient Greeks had a belief that as long as a man’s name was spoken on the earth then he was never truly dead. This is true. The name of Sophocles is still being spoken and his works still performed. This work just goes to show the enduring power through the centuries of words and theatre. Everyone on stage here is at one level simply a story teller and the real star of the work is the work itself.
This is a very powerful piece of work that has as much relevance today in the issues it confronts as when it was written.
Antigone is at The King's Theatre for most of August. Check here for performance dates
Review By Tom King