To understand Antigone's fierce insistence on burying her brother, it's important to provide further information about Greek burial practices:
The Greeks believed that at the moment of death the psyche, or spirit of the dead, left the body as a little breath or puff of wind. The deceased was then prepared for burial according to the time-honored rituals. Ancient literary sources emphasize the necessity of a proper burial and refer to the omission of burial rites as an insult to human dignity (Iliad, 23.71). Relatives of the deceased, primarily women, conducted the elaborate burial rituals that were customarily of three parts: the prothesis(laying out of the body (54.11.5)), the ekphora (funeral procession), and the interment of the body or cremated remains of the deceased. After being washed and anointed with oil, the body was dressed (75.2.11) and placed on a high bed within the house. During the prothesis, relatives and friends came to mourn and pay their respects. Lamentation of the dead is featured in early Greek art at least as early as the Geometric period, when vases were decorated with scenes portraying the deceased surrounded by mourners. Following the prothesis, the deceased was brought to the cemetery in a procession, the ekphora, which usually took place just before dawn. Very few objects were actually placed in the grave, but monumental earth mounds, rectangular built tombs, and elaborate marble stelai and statues were often erected to mark the grave and to ensure that the deceased would not be forgotten. Immortality lay in the continued remembrance of the dead by the living. From depictions on white-ground lekythoi, we know that the women of Classical Athens made regular visits to the grave with offerings that included small cakes and libations.
(source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Binoche and van Hove are sensitive to the centrality of grief in the play, emphasizing that Antigone's actions are motivated by mourning:
They persuaded the Canadian poet-classicist Anne Carson to create a text for them, and her deft and elegant new translation promises to be one of the real pleasures of the show, which opens at the Barbican in London before a 10-month tour with stops at the Edinburgh international festival and at BAM in New York. It is pared back, “bones and skin”, in Binoche’s words, yet palpably produced by someone with a lifetime’s marination in the text (in 2012, she also published a more personal version of the play, called Antigonick). At one point Carson produces the memorable line “archives of grief I see falling on this house”. The original Greek refers to “ancient calamities that are heaped upon the calamities of the dead”. The “archive” metaphor – original yet absolutely fitting – perhaps suggested itself to Carson because of its similarity to the word Sophocles uses for ancient, “archaia”.
And this is indeed a play that dives into “archives of grief”. Antigone’s storyline continues that of Sophocles’s plays concerning Oedipus, her father. Oedipus the King (c430 BC) ends with the revelation that he killed his father and married his mother. Jocasta, his wife-mother, kills herself; he puts out his eyes. Oedipus at Colonus (in fact the last of the plays to be premiered, in 401 BC) concerns Oedipus’s death in exile, accompanied by his daughters Antigone and Ismene, just as his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices are on the brink of war for possession of Thebes. At the start of Antigone (c441 BC), the brothers have, the previous night, slaughtered each other during Polynices’ siege of Thebes, leaving Creon, Jocasta’s brother, as ruler. Van Hove and Binoche found themselves drawn to rereading Oedipus at Colonus, and, says Van Hove of Antigone, “It was for me very obvious that this woman was in deep mourning. She has lost her mother, she lost her father, and now she lost her two brothers. That’s for me the starting point.”The way the text confronts and presents grief may be one reason why it continues to endure. Both Binoche and van Hove were forced, by the text, to consider modern issues of grief and the treatment of the dead:
Both actor and director, meantime, have found a fresh and harsh significance in the burial of the dead: Binoche has been considering the agonies that accompanied the burials of the Paris terrorists, interred in unmarked graves. For Van Hove, the resonance is deeply personal: one of the members of Toneelgroep was aboard the Malaysian Airlines flight shot down over eastern Ukraine in summer 2014. One week his colleague was DJing at a party to celebrate the company’s adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. The next he was “just laying somewhere in a field ... for over a week, in summer, in sun, rotting. The Dutch did something beautiful which Antigone does here. After two weeks, they brought the bodies to Eindhoven. There was a hearse for everybody, and they were driven through the whole country. The highways were lined with people. It was a huge showing of humanity: that you show respect to the dead. For me it suddenly became totally real.”