Barbican Theatre, London

© Jan Versweyveld

© Jan Versweyveld

Ivo van Hove’s production of Antigone starts off with a visual bang: Juliette Binoche, a tiny figure in a hostile environment struggling against a fierce wind in a desert landscape.

An iconic image if ever there was one, Sophokles’ heroine is nothing if not in rebellion.

Over the years, Antigone has come to represent any number of figures of resistance, most notably Anouilh’s translation in 1944 Vichy France kicking against the Nazi traces.

In 2015, what does Binoche represent? It’s not entirely clear, appropriately for a play known for its ambiguities. Though Antigone would seem to lend itself to an easy kind of polarisastion, is Antigone all selfless martyr, Kreon her uncle a cruel tyrant? Not necessarily.

Like Polly Findlay’s 2012 National Theatre production, van Hove’s is set in modern dress. But unlike Findlay which nodded towards repressive European state regimes van Hove’s is far more unspecific. Background landscapes indicate a possible Middle East setting or Greece itself; then again slow motion smudged figures and a US city blanched out by heavy snow indicate an urban American vista. Van Hove’s final image as Kreon, crumpled by despair from the consequences of his inflexibility, is of a night-time city bright with lights with an overlaid song by Dylan.

If Sophokles’ message is ultimately realised for Kreon, Antigone’s part is less so. Binoche beautifully conveys vulnerability and her own form of obsessiveness – a death-wish driven by an inner law to bury her outcast brother, forbidden by Kreon. But the tension between Patrick O’Kane’s impressive Kreon as the man-made, state before family, law-maker and Binoche following her own instinctual family/blood duty, is less than clearly joined.

The pace of Van Hove’s production, the better perhaps to draw full measure from Anne Carson’s elegiac translation, is slow, slow. At moments with the magnificent Kathryn Pogson as Eurydike, Kreon’s wife and Chorus, this makes for wonderfully heightened drama. So too when a booming voice launched at Antigone, consigned to a living death by Kreon in a cave, cuts through the auditorium with `get on with it’.

© Jan Versweyveld

© Jan Versweyveld

By turns, personal, domestic and epic, van Hove’s Antigone ravishes the eye if not the heart or head.

First published in Reviewsgate, March 2015