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Antigone teaches us how to grieve

Irving Wardle on the best version he’s ever seen

Irving Wardle | February 18th 2015

It is no surprise to see a political figure spotlit by the theatre, but rare to see theatre spotlit by a political figure. Such is the good fortune of “Antigone”, a new production of which opens at the Barbican in March starring Juliette Binoche. Last month Alexis Tsipras, the new Greek prime minister, launched his government with a vote of thanks to the Sophoclean heroine, who “has taught us that there are moments when the supreme law is justice.”

Of all ancient plays, “Antigone” is the most used to finding itself reflecting public events. In essence the play is a straight collision between power and conscience, between human and divine law. Antigone disobeys her royal uncle Creon, who has decreed that the corpse of her brother Polyneices should be left unburied after he’s killed in a civil war between him and his brother Eteocles. But just what Antigone and Creon stand for reflects an ever-lengthening list of the varieties of human conflict and sympathy. Antigone may appear the sympathetic one and Creon the face-saving bully—but Goethe thought he was the hero, declaring, “I prefer injustice to disorder.” George Steiner’s less-than-exhaustive book, “Antigones” (1984), lists 32 works for theatre, ballet and opera based on Sophocles’ original. And they keep on coming. 

Going back no further than the second world war, shake-ups in Western history have repeatedly generated their own Antigones. Jean Anouilh’s ambiguous masterpiece, which premiered in Paris in 1944, was a coded comment on the German occupation in which many spectators took Creon for a Vichy collaborator. Four years later came Brecht’s double-Antigone: a wartime prologue presenting Polyneices as a hanged deserter, followed by a main play returning to Thebes, now engaged in an oil war. Brecht also ripped out the gods, thus abolishing Fate and demoting Antigone from a tragic heroine to an anti-fascist rebel. On again to the age of terror with Polly Findlay’s 2012 National Theatre production, this time a political thriller set in an underground bunker reminiscent of the capture of bin Laden, with surveillance equipment standing in for the gods.

But in every production I have seen in a language I understood, there has always been a hole at the centre where the heroine ought to be. Surrounded by passion, awe, wrath, movement and all the colours in the dramatic rainbow, Antigone remains an unmoving grey presence. All she has to do is find different ways of saying “No.” Is this implacable mouse what Sophocles wanted? Having once had a glimpse of Antigone restored to life, I am sure that it is not.

I experienced this apparition in the 1960s at the old Scala Theatre on Charlotte Street in London, where Dimitris Rondiris’s Greek-language company were playing scenes from Sophocles with their leading lady, Aspasia Papathanassiou. She had been thrown out of the Greek National Theatre for being a communist, and then developed her technique by rehearsing solo in the deserted amphitheatres of the Greek countryside. When the military junta seized power in Greece in 1967 (banning ancient tragedy as subversive), Papathanassiou went into exile in London. London ignored her—which is why she found herself in dumps like the Scala.

I knew none of this when I first saw her. Here was a boyish figure with black hair and piercing black eyes, standing bolt upright like a priest facing a firing squad. So far, so close to the Antigone stereotype. This was no preparation for the voice. Designed to be heard by 15,000 people in the open air, it threatened to blast the Scala to rubble. Once your ears managed to accommodate that, it began transmitting a kind of music I had never heard before. I suppose I was hearing a text in dactylic hexameter but it sounded more as if a mountain had cracked open into lamentation. It was, as Sophocles himself says, the sound of “grief’s own language”. I didn’t understand a word of it, and it made me weep. This, I concluded, is what “Antigone” is for: to teach people how to grieve. That is character enough. And it can only be achieved through poetry as elemental as a natural catastrophe. A prose translation may deliver every shade of political and moral argument, but it cannot deliver the central character and the emotion she incarnates.

The translator for the new Barbican production is a poet, the T.S. Eliot prize-winner Anne Carson. And it would be hard to name any actor less mouse-like than Juliette Binoche. We may be in luck.

Antigone Barbican, London, March 4th to 28th

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