Sunday 15 March 2015

Antigone at the Barbican, or Solid Not Special

Note: This is a rather belated review of the performance on Sunday 8th March 2015. Usually I would not post something so delayed, but because we have a particular interest in the Edinburgh Festival and this travels there later in the year I wanted to record my thoughts despite the delay.

Late this month I'll finally get round to seeing Ivo van Hove's production of A View from the Bridge. Possibly it will then be clear to me why he's been much praised. On the strength of this performance it was not. It's not that this is a bad production, though there are some oddities, but I can't say that I found it either especially powerful or perceptive.

The setting is sparse. There's a raised platform in the centre into the middle of which various of the show's bodies are periodically raised and lowered, and with an access ramp leading into Kreon's house at the back. Along the front it can be accessed by various sets of steps and also facing the audience are a number of bookshelves and a sofa. The implication at the end, the reasoning behind which I couldn't make out, is that we are in some sort of archive. At the back there's a flat panel the width of the stage onto which various things are projected which add little. With the exception of the projections and the ending it's all perfectly serviceable if not especially inspired. The same applies to the costumes, which are modern and minimal, and don't do much to distinguish the characters, though this may well be intentional. I would criticise the high heels which all the women seem to be wearing which sometimes create a false note (as when Antigone is being buried alive) or undermine an attempt to hurry from one point to another (Ismene on a couple of occasions).

van Hove's main directorial decision is that the principals double as the chorus. The switches between roles are often not smooth, and there are some bizarre moments, most notably when Haimon's death is being reported directly to the now chorus member who earlier appeared as him, and when Antigone rises from the dead to become a messenger towards the conclusion. It's an idea that has potential, but I wasn't completely convinced by the execution.

The overall quality of the acting is considerably stronger than in other recent Greek tragedy I've seen and, in particular, the general quality of delivery is high. Finbar Lynch (Teiresias/Chrous) was for me the standout – a model of pacing, weight in the right places, and ratcheting up of tension – though I think the movement which has him trying to hit Kreon and ending up wedged against him in the house doorway was a mistake. Obi Abili's Guard has a nice tough of wit. Kirsty Bushell didn't make much impression on me as Ismene, but delivers one of the last speeches beautifully, though she could tone down the final scream without loss of effect. There are some oddities to the evolution of Patrick O'Kane's Kreon but his delivery of the text is generally of a high class.

The astute reader will notice that I have not yet mentioned Juliette Binoche's Antigone. I'm afraid I found her the weak link in the performance. Surrounded by native English speakers exposes the fact that Binoche is just that bit less comfortable in the rhythms of the language. She has problems making the words tell, and tends to resort to shouting at moments of tension where more variety of level would pack more punch. But the other problem is that the character of Antigone as described by the rest of the company is too much at variance with Binoche's performance. It starts almost at the beginning when Ismene refers to her wearing her “thunder face” - couldn't see it myself. Elsewhere the character needs authority and to be a convincing threat to Kreon, and for me Binoche didn't succeed on either count. There are places where she is not helped by the direction – for example when Kreon orders her to be taken away and nothing happens – but the issues with her performance go deeper than that. Oddly Binoche was at her best when taking her turn as Chorus towards the end.

This show is the long announced flagship theatre production of Fergus Linehan's first Edinburgh Festival in August. Overall it's a perfectly solid piece of theatre, but it is not a special one and Edinburgh audiences needn't feel they need to rush to snap up a ticket.

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