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Review: Juliette Binoche in Antigone, BBC (****)

The BBC film of  Juliette Binoche playing Antigone is available on the BBC iPlayer for free until around 25th June. As far as we’re aware, it is  not available on DVD.

Our Bottom Line:

A powerful production of Antigone with a very strong and even cast. Not faultless, but if you’re at all interested in Greek tragedy or theatre, it’s a must to watch, if you can. If you can’t, come to the Edinburgh Festival in August, and see it there.

Our Review (****)

We were very excited when we found out last December that Juliette Binoche was to play Antigone at the Edinburgh International Festival (see Juliette Binoche in Antigone), and have booked expensive tickets to go. We were rather surprised to find out that the BBC had filmed the Barbican production of the same show, and it is available on the BBC iPlayer for a month, until around 25th May. We could not resist the temptation to see the BBC recording, and that has led to this review.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it is the last part of the Oedipus trilogy, by Sophocles. In earlier plays, Oedipus has discovered that he has killed his father and married his mother, causing all sorts of familial confusion in their offspring. Oedipus has died at Colonus, and four of Oedipus’s children remain:  two brothers – Eteocles and Polynices who share the kingship until they fall out and wage war against each other, and kill each other; and two sisters, Antigone and Ismene.  After the death of the brothers, Creon is made king, and condemns the dead Polynices to be left unburied.

Antigone 03 edit

Antigone and Ismene meet to discuss Creon’s edict

This is where Antigone begins. The play shows the conflict between male and female zones of power in ancient Greece. The Greeks are in transition from a tribal society to a city state. Men rule the newly developing city; women have responsibility for death and birth, the family or clan, and the relationship with the gods. The tragedy is not a tragedy of a great individual brought low by their faults, but the conflict of irreconcilable forces in which people are destroyed.

Antigone has the religious duty to bury her brother, but her Uncle Creon, now king of the city, has decreed that he should remain unburied. Antigone and Ismene meet to see what they should do. Ismene is all for a quiet life, and wants to go along with Creon’s decree, but Antigone, knowing that it will lead to her death, decides that she must bury Polynices. The attitudes of both Creon and Antigone, are perhaps alien to our modern culture, and productions often take this story and turn it into something more familiar for our times. But here the conflict is treated in a way which one feels might be understood by an Ancient Greek. For those non-Ancient Greeks in the audience, it was presented as a conflict between a totalitarian state, and an individual with strong religious and family ties.

Antigone 05 edit

Antigone performs burial rites for Polynices

Antigone performs burial rites for her brother.  Creon is told this by a messenger, brilliantly-played  by Obi Abiliwho manages to introduces moments of humour into the unrelenting tale of woe.




Creon and Antigone after she has admitted burying Polynices

Creon and Antigone after she has admitted burying Polynices

Creon asks Antigone, if she has buried her brother, and she confesses that she has.

And now the tragedy unfolds. Creon decides that Antigone must die for disobeying his edict. To avoid the sin of killing his niece he has her walled up in a cave with food.

But Antigone is engaged to Creon’s son,  Haimon. He tries to persuade his father to forgive Antigone, but Creon will not. Haimon goes to the cave where Antigone has been entombed, finds she has hung herself, and then he kills himself.

When Eurydice, Creon’s wife, discovers that Haimon has died, she too, kills herself, and Creon is left alone.  The gods are cruel, for they are gods.

So how does this production tell this ancient story? The stage is mostly bare, with some chairs and a sofa at the very front. A large, bright, white disc on the back of the set is the main decoration. It is very dramatic, but impractical – anyone down stage centre, which is where most of the characters are most of the time, is backlit, and so it is difficult to see their facial expressions. At the start of the play, a wind drives across stage, encouraging the feel of an elemental time.

The cast are in modern dress, appropriate to a totalitarian state. It is a uniformly excellent cast, which gives the production an evenness which really helps the production. Binoche stands out with the most powerful, raw, emotional portrayal of Antigone.

As well as playing their own roles, everyone in the cast plays part of the chorus. This is fairly traditional, with perhaps one exception. There is nothing to mark whan an actor is playing a part or is part of the chorus. This sometimes confuses the audience (or at least me). When Juliette Binoche comes on as a member of the chorus, still dressed as Antigone, to tell the cast and audience that Antigone is dead, it confuses. The same happens with Haimon, who comes on as Chorus to tell Creon that Haimon is dead. More importantly, the role of the chorus as a crowd of interested and affected bystanders doesn’t exist. This changes the dramatic shape of the play, as well as removing the exploration of crowd psychology so much a part of Greek tragedies.

The text used is a new translation from Anne Carson. I particularly liked that Antigone’s story was linked back to the story of Oedipus, something I have missed in other productions. However, other familiar elements of the story were missing – I seemed to have missed the famous ‘Ode to Man’ – but one doesn’t know how much that was the script, and how much directorial editing.

Despite these  flaws, this is a powerful production, exploring the elemental emotions of this still powerful play, after 2,500 years. Congratulations to the cast and the director, Ivo van Hove.

If you have access to the BBC iPlayer, watch it, and be moved.

  ‘The Director’,

Eurydice (Creon's wife) about to find out her son is dead

Eurydice (Creon’s wife) about to find out her son is dead

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