“A city which belongs to just one man is no true city” – Sophocles, Antigone
The scene: a civil war. The plot: two brothers, dead at each other’s hands; a tyrant king versus a rebel. Sophocles’ Antigone is a story all too familiar today: a story of freedom and oppression, and of where our loyalties truly lie. The tragedy sees Antigone face off with her uncle, the king of Thebes, Creon, when he passes an edict declaring that only one of her brothers is to receive proper burial rites. Antigone takes it upon herself to bury her brother and as such, causes her own death.
The play is one of great cultural and political significance. Written at a time of political and social upheaval in Athens, Antigone sees Sophocles explore Athenian identity. The play examines what exactly is justice and duty (to the gods? To your family? Or to your king?), and questions the power of free will versus divine justice. It is a play of democracy and power, and the dangers of too much individualised power.
Antigone is still so relevant today. The quote above is startlingly relatable. It could easily be scrawled across the war-torn walls of today, or sharpie-ed secretly in a public toilet, a social media trend, or the ethos of a social rights movement. The fact that these words, thousands of years old, are still so relatable and current is fascinating.
Ivo van Hove’s new adaptation for the Barbican, based upon Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson’s new translation, highlights this fact perfectly. Brought into the modern day, the exact timing of the adaptation is never made explicit. The costumes suggest everything from subtle seventies styling to that of the modern day and I love this openness, further highlighting the plays applicability. The staging – minimalistic apart from boasting a few office supplies – is dominated by a vast screen upon which desert scenes and images of everyday life are translated; childhood memories and Antigone’s dead body. This not only continues to reinforce the play’s relevance today, but also serves as a metatheatrical technique, blurring the boundaries between play and reality. The cast too fluctuate between specific characters and chorus. I loved this choice – it plays with your mind and your perception of what’s real and not. It draws in the audience further, making us question whether in fact we ourselves are the play’s chorus.
Juliette Binoche is amazing as Antigone, fluidly transforming between heartbroken sister, enflamed rebel, and little-girl-lost. From taut and emotional scenes that pull on your heart strings, to eruptive scenes of angry passion, I was captivated – all the way in the very top row! Patrick O’Kane as Kreon (this adaptation spelt his name with a K) also stood out, and he too beautifully translated the tyrants metamorphosis: from cold and calculating leader, to a man who loses everything.
Aptly, I saw Antigone on International Woman’s Day. Throughout much is made about gender. Antigone and her sister are the last surviving members of her family, and she takes it upon herself to enact justice. She is literally a woman trying to live in a world made by, and for, men. Creon is obsessed with her gender, constantly remarking that he cannot lose to a woman. In Athenian drama, as in Athenian society at large, women (along with slaves and foreigners) were the ‘Other’. Only men were allowed to act on stage, just as only male citizens were able to vote: in Athenian society gender was a performance as much as it was on stage. Here Antigone is unique – a woman acts and speaks like a man –suggesting that Sophocles himself saw women as needing a greater part in Athenian society.
Trawl most blogs and websites and today it’s clear that we’re still discussing the same issues seen here: tyranny and democracy, justice and duty, the cost of war, free will, gender equality and women’s rights. This proves that these ancient texts are definitely not dead. As a Classics student of course I’m biased, but, as Ivo van Hove’s new production proves, I may not be wrong.