Style over substance? Image via americantheatre.org
Style over substance? Image via americantheatre.org

I had a very theatrical day on Sunday – not only did I and a couple of other MTA Youth panellists catch Come Closer at the Royal Exchange, I then had a date with Juliette Binoche in the evening. Only a televisual one, sadly – she was appearing in the BBC Four screening of the Barbican’s Antigone – but an intense and emotional date, nonetheless.

But first, Come Closer. This was a collection of 14 monologues, performed in and around the theatre space at the Exchange over the weekend of Friday 24th to Sunday 26th April. The most remarkable thing about the experience was that it was totally free – anyone could wander in and out of the theatre and foyer, catching half of a confession here, a screamed complaint there. At one point unsuspecting coffee-drinkers were surprised to see a leather-clad woman mount one of the tables in the café area and start shouting out political slogans. This was The Deepest Colour Red by Louise Wallwein, compellingly performed by a convicted Danielle Henry over the murmurs and echoes of the large foyer space. Understandably in the run-up to a General Election, Wallwein’s monologue was heavy on the banner-waving, but Henry’s performance lent the piece depth and heart.

Each monologue in the diverse programme had its own strengths – the rounded and emotional performance by Ibinabo Jack in A Letter to You, which saw a vulnerable woman giving advice to her even more vulnerable younger self; the subtleties of lighting in Distraction by Terry Corbett, where shadows clustered around the disturbed speaker and his face was never directly lit. Mina Anwar raised many a wry laugh as an MP at the end of her tether in Cards on the Table, balancing The Deepest Colour Red to give two very different examples of women’s voices in and around politics. All in all, the Exchange is to be commended for providing a very accessible and professional programme over the three days, with a lot of talking points.

Now, to Juliette Binoche, and the Barbican’s Antigone, translated by Anne Carson and directed by Ivo van Hove. Again, free of charge (license fee aside), and this I could partake in from the comfort of my own sofa. Reader, I won’t mince my words: I’d have paid for Come Closer, but I was glad I hadn’t paid for this.

Perhaps it would have been different if I had been in the theatre, rather than watching at home. The claustrophobic environment of a theatre space, appropriate for a story that heads inexorably towards Antigone’s confinement in a cave, might have heightened the drama. But on screen, I didn’t feel the mounting tension, and everybody seemed to shout and scream about twice as much as they needed to – a rookie mistake in a tragedy.

I liked the bare set, with its huge orb that changed from sun to moon, and the shadowy projections that appeared and disappeared around it. The modern costumes and minimal furniture told us we could be anywhere and anytime, and I could buy the play as a parable on modern government, with Patrick O’Kane’s cruel Creon stubbornly insisting on his right to absolute power. But when, at the close of the play, a modern cityscape lit up the stage, it felt heavy-handed and anachronistic.

There was a touching use of crackly home video footage during a speech by Teiresias about Antigone and her family’s ‘archives of grief’ – it’s a brilliant idea, and as far as I know an original one, to use archive films to illustrate the great Greek stories of ancestral curses and dynastic disaster. Binoche herself didn’t shine as I hoped she would; I preferred the subtler performance of Kirsty Bushell as her sister Ismene. From the stripped-down set to the classy costumes, this was an attractive production, but it lacked the substance to go with the style.

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