Before we even start: a brilliant actress in one of the greatest plays of all time – this is going to be one hell of a night at the theatre. Juliette Binoche gives a powerfully emotional performance as Antigone and there are great performances from Kathryn Pogson and Kirsty Bushell. Maybe the male actors rely on their mikes a little too much, so they end up speaking in the tough guy whisper-growls of Hollywood thrillers, yet everyone is good. But there’s always going to be that question: how much sense can we make of a play two-and-a-half thousand years old?
Two and a half-fucking-thousand years is an unbelievably long time ago. The programme has an essay trying to explain how the Greeks would have taken the play, echoed in some reviews, but how could we ever know? All the big touchstones of our culture did not yet exist. There was no Britain, no Europe. No English language, no French. Not only was there no Christianity, there was not even a Jewish Bible – almost all of it had yet to be written. In Sophocles’ day, the great world powers had always come from the south – from the Euphrates and Persia – a thousand miles from the emerging city state of Athens. Greek-speaking people lived all around the Mediterranean basin and the islands, trading with the Hebrew-esque speaking Phoenicians who dominated the sea, and the Aramaic-speaking subjects of the Persian King who ruled the land. When we hear Antigone, today, we hear echoes of the Bible, of Shakespeare, Milton, picked up by the authors or introduced by translators, but we have no idea how the original would have sounded, or what echoes it would have carried of these older, greater cultures that overshadowed little Athens.
The great strength of Ivo van Hove”s direction and Anne Carson’s translation is that they are ready to be abstract, to disorientate the audience, and even to admit that much is impenetrable. Why are street scenes projected onto the huge backdrop with the burning sun at its centre? Why has the chorus gone, and what logic is there to the way the chorus’ lines are dished out between the characters? It destabilises, which must be the right approach. Not all the abstractions work – why play the song Heroine by the Velvet Underground, when it must be so heavily edited to kind-of-fit? Others abstractions do not go far enough: Anne Carson’s translation of the famous Ode to Man, with its meditation on the savage, thoughtful strangeness of humans, was truly out-there in her earlier graphic novel Antigonick. It is rather more like a shopping list of similes for ‘uncanny’ in this production. But all of the instincts are right.
The play is a face-off between two characters who never change: there is no modern-day messing around with character arcs. Princess Antigone is implacable, King Kreon is unyielding. Antigone wants to bury a traitor, her brother. Kreon insists the body be left in the wasteland to be eaten as carrion as a warning to other usurpers. This clash between the man and the woman ends by destroying the kingdom.
A key idea of many contemporary productions is that Kreon, the law-maker, is the evil dictator, while Antigone, faithful to the unwritten law, is virtuous. And it is pure bollocks. There is no such thing as the unwritten law: law is always man-made. If we can say anything about Sophocles intentions, we can say this: laws are the things that ensure the smooth running of states, higher laws are deadly fantasies. Antigone appeals to the precedence of the natural law or the law of the gods (as though these are the same thing), but as Juliette Binoche makes clear, her insistence is arbitrary: the truth is she feels she cannot abandon a dead brother. She offers a specious argument for her loyalty to the dead man (husbands and children can be replaced, brothers cannot), but at heart her decision is wilful – nutty, proud, even sexualised. Yet, though all of this is obvious, Antigone’s rebellion ultimately chimes with everyone else in Kreon’s kingdom, the citizens and aristocrats alike. And it is Kreon’s fault: the more he keeps battering away at Antigone, the more he undermines his own status.
The closest modern-day version of Antigone is Nora in A Doll’s House. Nora insists there are higher laws which can justify forgery and fraud. She knows the men around her have been bending laws whenever it suits, and the more they insist upon their moral rectitude, the more they look like hypocrites. In Sophocles play, the more Kreon insists on trampling down natural law, the more flaky his state’s laws look. The great paradox, as Sophocles knows, is that while laws are man-made, the idea of the Law, big ‘L’, seems to need something else, something greater, more transcendent, more mystical. This strange paradox stills bedevils us today, as states and politicians continue to appeal to religious laws to underpin their authority, or worse to racial traits, local knowledge and custom, even myths and legends.
If women are locked out of government, they get a voice when rebellion looms. It may be anarchic, uncontrolled, implacable. It is often wailing, shrill. It is certainly not the voice of equality. But it is powerful, as the myth of the petroleuses show (see the picture above). Female terrorists and freedom fighters have an unearthly power: figures like Leila Khaled, Ulrike Meinhof, Emma Goldman, Louise Michel. And behind them all: Antigone.
Rating: Four Stars