Thinking out loud with your body: Theatre, film, tragedy, Carson, Binoche, Antigone


Photo: Jan Versweyveld

I was at the Barbican at the weekend to see Ivo van Hove’s production of Antigone, in Anne Carson’s new translation of Sophocles.

No, that’s a lie. I was at the Barbican to see Juliette Binoche playing Antigone. What I saw was Van Hove’s production.

Binoche – she looked at me once, I swear! And at one point was sat on the edge of the stage, not twelve feet from our Row B seats! – was great, but really she wasn’t there as an actress; she was there as a star. The performance she gave came filtered through my preconceived sense of her as a ‘personality’, itself partly made up of all the characters I have seen her play on screen till now, each of those characters only ever iterations or manifestations of her presence – that mixture of watchableness, knowableness and unknowableness that go to make a star.

(I don’t mean this facetiously. An actor is someone who is good at pretending to be other people. A star is someone who is good at pretending to be themselves, or themselves as others see them. In the cinema a film is projected onto a screen. When that film features a film star, there are a hundred, two hundred, a thousand additional projectors. Each audience member is a projector.)

That Juliette Binoche is as good an actress as she is means that this situation didn’t devolve to her simply standing on stage being Juliette Binoche. At most, she was stood on stage being Juliette Binoche being Antigone. But she was never being Antigone.

This suspicion, that the production was a vehicle for its star, wasn’t helped by Van Hove’s attitude towards her. You got a strong sense that he would rather have been directing her in a film.

(You can see a staged reading of Anne Carson’s Antigonick here, which is largely identical to the script of this production. There is minimal additional movement in Van Hove’s production, minimal set. What there is, in addition, is the cinema.)

The stage, in Jan Versweyveld’s design, was set out in letterbox format, with a wide, flat backdrop that was often used for film projections, and a raised stage that put certain scenes very much at screen level, while other scenes took place on a slightly lower transverse strip across the front of the stage – the difference in height between them being roughly the same as that in a cinema between floor and screen.

In the opening scene the backdrop showed a desert landscape. Binoche entered from the left and walked slowly across stage, her hair and clothes tousled by wind coming from the wind machines off-stage to the right. It was like a scene from Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, with Juliette Binoche recast as Count Almásy staggering across the Libyan desert.

Faced with an auditorium full of people wanting to see a film star in the flesh, in the four dimensions of theatre time and space, Van Hove starts by giving us Binoche as if on film.

He ends by giving us her sat on the lip of the lower stage, legs dangling into our domain, talking to us with all the whispered intimacy of a child sat on her bed before bedtime, telling us about her day.

(And yes, that whispered intimacy was miked and amplified, but I could live with that. It meant that the actors in this Greek tragedy didn’t have to PROJECT! Didn’t have, in other words, to be tragedians.)

Van Howe then comprehensively ruins this delightful trajectory – from screen to audience – by ending the production with a pre-filmed insert, in which Patrick O’Kane’s Creon, in that awful crime drama cliché of identifying the next-of-kin, looks at Binoche’s face then pulls a white sheet up over it as she lies dead on a hospital or morgue gurney. We don’t need to identify her – she’s Juliette Binoche! We’ve just been watching her, for real, on stage. We don’t need to be reminded what she looks like on film. We’ve got the rest of our lives, before and after this evening, for that…

(The production also ends, inexplicably, to a soundtrack of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’: this was fine so long as all it was a loop of the opening two chords, playing quietly but malevolently in the background, just on the far side of recognition. When it blossomed into full life, however, it was almost – almost – embarrassing. Who, as a teenager, hadn’t directed, in their head, a production of a Greek tragedy that ended to a soundtrack of a Velvet Underground song?)

Binoche is good, she is watchable, but it is notable that she is the only actor allowed by Van Hove to inject any real sense of self, of personality into their performance. (The staged reading of Antigonick is characterised by an extreme blankness that seems to embody Carson’s attitude to the idea of Greek tragedy, or Greek tragedy today. Certainly Van Hove seems to share that attitude. Binoche too, though as I say she does not (or cannot) efface herself entirely.)

The production is sparse and spare and slow. Inevitability does not entail imminence. The characters’ fate is coming, and the fact that it is coming means that the time and speed of its arrival is irrelevant.

In one tremendous passage, the actor Kathryn Pogson, playing the part of the Chorus (all the actors except O’Kane double up as chorus members; this is effective, if at first confusing) recites a line, while staring with magisterial balefulness out at the audience, that goes something like this (I alas remember only in part – if anyone has the script, please let me know!):

Many things strange, terrible, clever, wondrous, monstrous, marvellous, dreadful, awful and weird there are in the world…

And then continues:

…but none more strange, terrible, clever, uncanny, wondrous, monstrous, marvellous, dreadful, awful and weird than Man.

It took her about 90 seconds to say the whole thing. It was hypnotic. (The line isn’t there in Antigonick. There it is the shorter, sassier

Many terribly quiet customers exist but none more terribly quiet than man.

The development from Antigonick to Antigone seems to have involved partly scrubbing it of its more sarcastic elements. Sardonicism remains, of course, and humour – without it, there would have been a great risk of portentousness – but there is less of the deadpan playfulness that sees Eurydike preface her monologue with the line

This is Eurydike’s monologue.

But you do get lines like this (deader than deadpan):

Oh, here comes Haimon.

What this slow, minimally dramatised production gives you that the Antigonick reading doesn’t, for instance, is time to think. (The script for Antigone might be only 10 or 20% longer than that of Antigonick, but the running time is more than doubled.) That’s where theatre always trumps film: being contingent, it is so much more philosophic, open and amenable to active thinking. Here’s a thought I had during the show:

Theatre is a place you go to watch people think out loud with their bodies.

And here is another

Space on stage in a theatre is symbolic space.

And another

Time in the theatre is also a form of space. A play, unlike a film, has no duration. Rather its ‘running time’ is a section of life put aside for the application of the laws of theatre to the problem at hand.

This is why I prefer the theatre to film; it allows me to think.

(Add: Many thanks to Jude Fisher (@ObligedOmnivore) for supplying me with the correct ‘strange, terrible, clever…’ text)



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