Austere Agony in Antigone

Antigone – Barbican, until 28 March 2015 (tickets – returns only)

It seems that London theatres cannot get enough of the ancient Greeks. Last year we were treated to a contemporary Medea at the National and a relatively classical Electra at the Old Vic. The Credit Jan Versweyweld Almeida have announced a season containing The Bakkhai, Oresteia and, tantalisingly, a chance to watch Rupert Goold direct his wife, Kate Fleetwood, in another Medea (and one would love to have Freud’s opinion on that choice!).

Sandwiched between them, but certainly not squeezed out, is what can only be described as a major theatre event; Ivo van Hove – fresh off the universally acclaimed A View From The Bridge – directing Juliette Binoche in Sophocles’ Antigone.

Of all the Greek tragedies it is Antigone that appears the most timeless. The moral dilemma at its heart is as immediately relevant today as it was when it was written 2500 years ago. It is a staggering achievement of simplicity and a constant reminder of the universal nature of human experience. Whilst society is broadly unrecognisable from the small slave-owning city-states of Greece in 5th century BC, the central compelling issue – of whether a person can hold a moral law above that of the state – remains at the heart of many contemporary debates.

Ivo van Hove works with a minimalist’s clarity and sense of purpose to bridge a gap between the ancient and the modern. He is supported through Jan Versweyweld’s set design that splits the large Barbican space into two distinct areas. The downstage is kitted out in a sleek, functional contemporary urban style, whilst the upstage is starkly bare. Both locations give no hint to place to emphasise the universalism of the narrative.

Van Hove further stresses the ageless, placeless nature of Antigone’s dilemma by projecting huge, abstract scenes onto the back wall. A huge circular cut-out at the start of the play gives the impression of a solar eclipse – a traditional signifier of the intervention of the gods – before slowly rolling aside to let light stream in and bath the stage in a clinical brightness. It is a production where everyone’s actions will come under the microscope and be subjected to judgement; by the gods, by the playwright and by the audience.

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Antigone: A very modern ancient Greek tragedy

Antigone – National Theatre, until 21 July 2012

Polly Findlay’s production of Antigone, which runs at a brisk 100 minutes without an interval, is a fine example of balancing the demands of classical Greek tragedy against modern audience sensibilities. In this regard it is helped by Don Taylor’s solid translation that irons out much of the overly heightened poetics in favour of a more earthy realism. This has the dual effect of making the plot a lot less tangled to an audience not raised on the complexities of Grecian mythology and also downplaying the role of the gods in the drama – possibly the single biggest problem in finding contemporary resonance in the surviving works by Greek playwrights.

The text has been filleted to make it performable without a break and this broadly works in the narrative’s favour. Antigone is rooted in conflict  from the opening moments and it doesn’t take long to become apparent that the audience are watching the playing out of a tragedy made inevitable by the choices taken by humans. By removing the interval Findlay is able to keep the tension ratcheted up and allows momentum to build like a wave from first scene to last.

The action is set, effectively if not a little predictably, in the war rooms of Creon’s (Christopher Eccleston) administration. Soutra Gilmour’s set design has done an impressive job of filling the Olivier stage without giving the impression of it being cluttered. This is achieved by partitioning offices towards the back of the stage that has the effect of shortening the vast space by a good 10 metres and forcing most of the action towards the audience. As a result the production feels much more intimate than many staged at the Olivier.

Findlay doesn’t waste the space and there is the constant background buzz of an administration on the brink. The Chorus form the civil servants that run things behind the scenes. There are two very cute moments in the opening moments that help to create a world that is instantly recognisable; the first is what must surely be a deliberate echo of the famous image of Obama and team watching the raid on Osama’s hideout. The second is the chorus’ announcement of the death of Polyneices & Eteocles restaged as the drafting of the press release, with the text being revised to tone down the language of war.

What marks Antigone as one of the most important plays in the Western canon is the fact that, despite it being dated to a period almost 2500 years ago, it is still dealing with issues that are recognisably modern. Other surviving plays are of interest, or contain some certain relevance, to a modern audience but Sophocles captures issues that are still being played out on the world stage in the 21st century.

The idea of the rights of the individual against the rule of the state is one that will never be resolved and Sophocles shows it through an issue that has a stark modern relevance; the death of Osama Bin Laden led to mass protests following his burying at sea, which was seen as breaking Sharia law. This contemporary example amply demonstrates that the right to be buried in accordance with tradition has not diminished over two millennia.

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Around Town: Next Week in London

The lack of an update for over a week is a sign that Civilian Theatre has been taking a well-earned break following the enduring trauma experienced by watching Babel. However the reviewing season kicks off again in earnest next week with three plays lined up, each of which I am quietly confident about.

Antigone has the enticing prospect of Christopher Ecclestone returning to the National Theatre after a 22-year absence. Performing in one the great plays of the classical era, Ecclestone has the craggy and worn features that seem ideally suited to play Creon, a man who has spent years charged with the responsibility of holding together the state over and above any call to personal desires. He is one of our great character actors who actually appears in a lot less work than you probably remember but whose appearance is usually a clue that we are going to be watching some quite special – he is superb as Derek Bentley in Let Him Have It; one of those rare films where you can feel the anger of injustice bubbling through every scene, and equally good in the seminal 90’s TV series, Our Friends in the North.   

The Physicists will be the next play under Josie Rourke’s tenure at the Donmar. Having scored a big hit with The Recruiting Officer but perhaps underwhelmed slightly for many with Making Noise Quietly, Rourke will be looking to come back strongly with Durrenmatt’s The Physicists. It is hard to think of a playwright, or indeed style, that has fallen more out favour in recent years than Durrenmatt’s slightly avant-garde, philosophical work. However I can remember being absolutely blown away by a production of The Visit and the staging possibilities that such a play open’s up. When you take time to sit back and survey London’s theatrical landscape do you realise the striking absence of such originality- even if plots and narrative can still remain freewheeling and anarchic, there is a sense that dramatically everything looks a little a bit conservative. Admittedly Complicite are still pushing boundaries but, for all the positive reviews, plays like Laura Wade’s Posh appear very formal in style. One hopes that a strong production of The Physicists will help start getting director’s to re-embrace the experimental in formal settings rather than feeling that experimental necessarily means site-specific pieces and audience engagement. Time was when director’s used a theatre to recreate an atmosphere, currently it feels that the audience aren’t trusted to suspend our disbelief and will only understand that we are in an abattoir if we see real cows hanging off hooks around us.

The Ninagawa’s Company production of Cymbeline at the Barbican promises to finally kick start what has been so far a rather disappointing World Stage Festival. Little more needs to be said about Babel, and Three Kingdoms, whilst interesting, did not set the world alight with a mixture of fantastic ideas and, at times, incoherent structure. Having previously missed all of Ninagawa’s English productions, I am tremendously excited by a company that has a global reputation for Shakespeare and a history of producing visually spectacular tableaux that meld together Shakespearian storytelling with traditional Japanese techniques. Cymbeline is a particualarly interesting choice of play, as it is one of Shakespeare’s more problematic narratives and seems to be one that is alighted on more frequently by companies that often take an angle slightly askance of the traditional – the last major London production being Kneehigh’s version at the Battersea Arts Centres, which included all its usual visual flair but perhaps provided a little too much fun over substance.

Stills from Ninagawa’s Cymbeline

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