“Antigone” becomes a plea for pluralism in Ivo Van Hove’s new staging. Teamed up with the French actress Juliette Binoche by London’s Barbican Center, the Belgian director turns Sophocles’s tragedy into a rallying cry against the us-and-them, black-and-white mentality of contemporary global politics. Canadian poet Anne Carson’s new translation, often insistently feminist, advocates the act of listening as the starting point of tolerance. It might lack feeling, but this is an urgent “Antigone,” less about cathartic release than a real-world response.
Eschewing the high-definition naturalistic acting that made his production of “A View From the Bridge” so engrossing, van Hove instead honors tragedy as an enacted event. His staging is stark and gestural, emphatic even. Microphones add to the sense of distance as actors plant their feet and pronounce, speaking slowly and deliberately so that every single sentence can land. Carson’s translation is meticulously clear, and her language remains the central focus throughout. The result is a drama that wants hearing and heeding.
Binoche’s Antigone and Patrick O’Kane’s Kreon are fundamentally opposed to one another. She exists in the wind-blasted desert; he, in a wintery city. Both landscapes, seen in Tal Yarden’s vast video projections, are flatly monochrome: all sand, all snow. Behind her is the sun; behind him, the moon. As the play goes on, the two become entrenched and absolute: Kreon in his determination that Polyneikes should remain unburied, Antigone in her determination to bury him as a sister ought.
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Carson lays bare the language of that opposition: good and bad, friend and foe, ally and enemy. O’Kane’s Kreon, a scowl of a man, is a leader under threat. While his people would forget the recent war, he uses it to clamp down on dissent, citing their security. His Thebes is “a place for law-abiding men.” Both words land with equal weight.
In accepting no exceptions, family ties or otherwise, Kreon reduces Antigone’s defiance to plain antagonism. All nuance disappears. There’s a beautiful choral speech that talks of “many things strange, terrible, clever, wondrous” and so on. Each adjective is subtly distinct in its meaning. “Answer me this,” Kreon demands, “and no long speeches.” Above all else, Carson’s text would have us listen.
The failure to do so is portrayed as a particularly masculine trait. Here the men are all bald and bullet-headed. O’Kane is the Default Man: white, middle-aged, black-suited. His chorus is diverse, old and young, male and female, black and white. It is played by the other characters, including Kirsty Bushell’s Ismene, Finbar Lynch’s Teiresias, Kathyrn Pogson’s Eurydike; all individuals that make a population, each with their own story.
Jan Versweyweld’s design stresses the point, with shelves stacked with video tapes that stand for the surveillance of a paranoid state as well as the home movies of a family home. Every individual has a history with a childhood, loved ones, hopes, dreams. Antigone, as Kreon portrays her, is simply an enemy of the state, dehumanized and impersonal. Binoche, though she garbles some of her lines, suggests that Antigone grows into that role; in being so reduced, her antagonism only increases.