Double Trouble In Thebes

Two productions of Antigone show the elasticity of one of the most challenging plays in the canon

Classics Family Theatre
Harrowing, but too histrionic: Juliette Binoche in “Antigone” (photo: Jan Versweysweld)

In a crowded field, Antigone is one of the most harrowing of the Greek tragedies. Its tensions between loyalty to family and belief in the strength of the state interested both Brecht and Anouilh. The concerns of 441 BC feel bruisingly alive as we contemplate variable allegiances to nation states and how family ties can smother, as well as bind.

Hegel thought the play one of the most challenging in the canon, because both sides are right, according to their interpretation of morality, and both take their conviction to extremes. Antigone’s desire to bury her brother Polyneices at the cost of her life is the logical consequence of love and duty. But Creon, once defied, cannot easily give ground without creating yet more schisms in a bloodied and disputed Thebes.

Today’s productions, more tamely, tend to focus on the thwarted proto-feminism of Antigone, as she fights a doomed contest with the autocratic Creon. Two contrasting productions on the London stage emphasise the elasticity of the play and how readily it adapts itself to shifting moods and preoccupations. The Barbican (whose production will be screened on BBC4 later this spring) serves up Juliet Binoche, the French screen siren, who gamely keeps trying to conquer the acreage of stage at the Barbican, without so far succeeding. Here, as in the flat-footed Miss Julie, Binoche comes across as a film actor who has not yet conquered the transition to theatre. Even the fluent direction of Ivo van Hove, Europe’s in-demand Belgian, whose A View From The Bridge is justly garnering plaudits in the West End, cannot fend off an unmoving performance. Binoche’s face is lovely: a big, square, impassive canvas of pain as she confronts Patrick O’Kane’s bullet-headed Creon, but she mutters sulkily one moment and shouts like a harpy the next. It’s all a bit too much like histrionic Racine and we never settle into an empathetic relationship with her.

The chorus and Ismene (Kirsty Bushell), Antigone’s sinewy and adaptable sister, lounge around on leather chairs as if trapped in a luxurious but chilly oligarch’s pad. This is a play that can bear transfer to a contemporary Anyplace—the National’s recent version placed Christopher Eccleston in a file-lined office somewhere between the Stasi and an anonymous Whitehall ministry. Jan Versweyveld’s set makes the most of the cavernous stage, a huge white circle acting as sun and later eclipsing to crescent moon as the inevitable unfolds. Being the Barbican in 2015, some whale-like looping sounds accompany the story, for no obvious reason. Cheesy home-made footage of the young Antigone and Polyneices (one assumes) are projected on to the back wall. Having acquired computer-generated imagery, directors feel obliged to use it.

None of this would fatally damage the production, but Binoche’s swings from sulkiness to screeching rage are so unlovable that energy and empathy leech out of the proceedings. Some moments of fire ignite, memorably her anger at Ismene’s attempt to intercede on her behalf—“This is not your death”—but by the time a remorseful Creon rushes to (not quite) save her, half of the audience were surely hoping he did not make it in time. Anne Carson’s translation lollops along with some cheeky colloquialisms— “Bingo!” interjects Antigone—but some absolute clunkers: “It’s public policy,” explains one of the chorus after a hideous turn of events. Whatever word the Greeks found for that, let us hope it was more euphonious.

Language and its power to oppress or elevate is also at the heart of Roy Williams’s cheeky street-smart version at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Williams makes Thebes a gangland, presided over by Creo (Mark Monero), a blustering, bullying but sporadically winsome boss. Tig (Savannah Gordon-Liburd)  is the sort of stroppy female you dread bumping into with your shopping trolley—awkward and uncompromising, with a tongue all too ready to lash.

The street argot is surprisingly bracing: “We is Thebes. We is crew,” chant the chorus. Williams ventures where Sophocles never dared to tread by creating love scenes between Haimon and Tig.  You can only stretch credibility so far before veering close to a Greek-EastEnders’ “Ah luv ya, Tig” and a discussion about his sudden impotence. Yet other innovations work brilliantly: Teiresias lumbers on, wheeling a vagrant’s  cart, his impudent premonitions of doom blamed on too many hits of the crack pipe. The world at the end of this Antigone is a shattered place of overlapping unhappiness. The one at the end of van Hove’s productions goes back to servants of the state, automatically typing reports of events to continue the business of power—a more austere version of the same horror.

Tragedy is to be taken seriously  most of the time but let’s end with a valiant exception. The Shakespeare Schools Festival helps state schools mount productions with professional guidance, engaging pupils who might otherwise never see a Shakespeare play. It has  also come up with a nifty fundraising ruse I was thrilled to join (since all critics should be forced by law to make a West End debut). It is a mock trial of some of Big Will’s villains, and this year Macbeth was in the dock at the Noel Coward Theatre. Warring teams of London’s loftiest QCs tried to pin the blame or get the rascal off. (One of them had defended Julian Assange, another Rebekah Brooks, so the Macbeths must have seemed like relatively unchallenging clients.) Christopher Eccleston and Haydn Gwynne played the unhappy Scottish couple; Sir Michael Burton, the High Court judge, played—you’ve got it—a High Court judge.

Treating the great dramas to a courtroom filleting makes us all think about their brilliance and puzzle at their inconsistencies. One minute Lady Macbeth receives a letter from the battlefield, the next she’s inviting us to unsex her and take her milk for gall. Her husband is goaded by the prophecy, but why put so much effort into killing Duncan, then let his heir, the thoroughly boring Malcolm, get away? The jury found Macbeth not guilty, by a margin of 5-2. As for Lady M, I still believe she was just a hard-done-by corporate wife who went a bit too far.