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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Our friend, Electra.

Electra – Old Vic, until 20 December (Tickets)

There is no doubting Ian Rickson and Kristin Scott-Thomas make a formidable team; in their four collaborations they have covered Pinter to Sophocles by way of Chekhov, walked off with an Olivier award and garnered a hatful of plaudits. Electra, at the Old Vic, may be the least balanced of the Rickson/Scott-Thomas productions but it is hard to deny the towering performance at its centre from Scott-Thomas that cements her place as a first rate stageAnguish Kristin Scott Thomas Credit Image Alastair Muir actor.

The story of the death of Agamemnon, the duplicity of Clytemnestra, the debasement of Electra and the return of Orestes is one that retained a mythic quality from its origins in Homer and its reappearance in the Delphic Oracle before it found itself reimagined over and over as theatre found its voice and as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides began to create the traditional boundaries of drama.

It is a story that would’ve been well known to its ancient audiences, and just as modern directors continually reinvent Shakespeare so we find ancient Greek playwrights going back to the original myth and reframing it for a new generation. The curious thing about the Old Vic’s version is that it has lost something of why the story would have been regarded as essential to an ancient audience.

Often the disconnect is in modernity jarring too heavily with the ancient world; a problem found in the National’s recent production of Medea, and that ultimately saw Ben Power’s translation tie itself in knots and changing the ending to fit between the two positions. However in Frank McGuinness’ translation the problem is the reverse – whilst the play feels authentically ancient in set and language, the actual plot is strangely pallid. It is hard to know where the tragedy is in what we are watching.

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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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