Juliette Binoche, the movie star who won an Oscar in the 90s for The English Patient, plays the title role in the new production of the Greek tragedy Antigone, which began a short (through Oct. 25 only) run last night at Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.
If her name is the most eye-catching for a general audience, the production is also significant in that it marks the Washington debut of the director of the production, the Belgian enfant terrible Ivo van Hove.
I have been reading about and hearing about van Hove’s work for years, since he began a series of productions of classic plays for New York Theatre Workshop.
Those productions made quite a splash, sometimes literally: His Blanche duBois threw herself, completely dressed, into a full tub of water. In his production of O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions, the matriarch of the staid New England family (originally played by Ingrid Bergman) ran across the stage nude but for a pair of high heels. In The Misanthrope, the audience saw via live video that Alceste ended up inside a dumpster in an alley behind the theater.
He is now on the cusp of a breakthrough year. His production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, which brought him an Olivier Award when it was the talk of the London theatre season, will transfer to Broadway, where he will also direct a production of Miller’s The Crucible.
His work is controversial and can trigger intense opposite reactions, sometimes from the same person. For instance, New York Times chief critic Ben Brantley raved about his recent reimagining of Angels in America, but then had a tepid response to this Antigone.
The production, let me report, does not include choices as extreme as the Blanche tub dive. But, if the conversation during the drive home in my car last night was any indication, reactions to it will be intense and opposite.
The production certainly confounds most expectations for a Greek tragedy. The acting is generally subdued, the mood (set by an ominous score that would fit easily into a horror film) is ponderous, and much of the dialogue is delivered conversationally — emotions are not constantly raw and heightened, the way you might expect when you see the Greeks.
The tone is as if the aesthetics of a Lars van Trier film have been applied to a Greek tragedy.
From the first scene, between Antigone and her sister Ismene, the cinematic feel is pronounced. You realize that the microphones are not being used to aid amplification of voices that are projecting to be heard in a large auditorium. Rather, they are used to allow the actors to converse intimately, as if acting for a camera, not in a big theater.
The new translation by Anne Carson (a MacArthur Fellow) is colloquial and matches the production’s juxtaposition of the mundane, the everyday, against the extremity of the play’s events. At the same time, though, it compellingly articulates the ageless concerns that inspired the play. Yes, man is unique in this world, man is “weird.” Man grapples with the implications of life, death, and behavior with a mixture of fear, courage, avoidance, and grace that must feel in so many ways the same now as when the play was written a few thousand years ago.
Video projection of images not ostensibly related to the action (now barren landscapes, now out-of-focus figures moving in slow motion, now figures moving in snow, now home movies, now back to a landscape) also contributes to this mashup of contemporary aesthetics to the most ancient of theatrical narratives.
Will you find this approach illuminating, or exasperating, or both at different times? I expect the reactions were about as varied as the number of people in attendance. At the performance’s end, many stood and cheered, while others fled quickly, making no attempt to conceal their confusion or contempt.
I thought it was really cool, a compelling balance of the now and the then. Sure, it may not have provided the intense cathartic experience we have been taught to expect from tragedy. Sure, I can’t explain the concluding tableau.
Frequently, though, the intensity of traditional productions of Greek plays has made me more aware of actors straining than of the story of the play and its implications. We see a lot of televised reaction to horrific events. Often, people seem dazed and deadened by them. Not everyone responds to tragedy by rending garments and cursing the skies. In fact, that acting style can seem just as incongruous when, as we frequently see these days, the characters are dressed in modern garb.
Last night, watching the production, I thought a lot about how the story applies to our world; about the limits of the ability of politics to accommodate the complexities of the world; about the folly of the human impulse to control fate.
Contemporary analogues occurred to me throughout: Kreon’s attempt to make Oedipus’ dead son Polynices a kind-of non-person brought Stalin to mind; his claim that he had “kept our city safe” echoed a recent discussion in our national politics. (Antigone is, really, a great election year play.)
Binoche plays Antigone and Patrick O’Kane is Kreon and the play is largely a clash of will between the two. Five other actors function as the chorus, and also play the other roles in the story (Antigone’s sister Ismene and fiancé Haimon, for instance).
The van Hove approach is most satisfying as regards those secondary parts. The muted response of a character like the Guard (Obi Abili) who finds that the body of Polynices has been buried, for instance, was fresh and funny. The obliviousness of Eurydike (Kathryn Pogson) to the fate of her family made sense and was poignant.
Finbar Lynch, who long-time theatergoers like me will remember as Puck in a popular RSC Midsummer that played the Center in the early 90s, portrayed Teiresias against stale conventions and to strong effect. Kirsty Bushell was wonderful, whether as Ismene or whether delivering her Chorus chores.
The approach is less satisfying for the characters who have a show-spanning arc. Both Binoche and O’Kane have wonderful moments and scenes, and contribute to the power of the play’s conclusion.
But there’s a wonderful video of the Jean Anouilh version of Antigone that was done for PBS in the 70s, in which the Antigone of Geneviève Bujold and the Creon of Fritz Weaver have a consistency that is missing from the characters here.
This Kreon (maybe it’s the “K”?) is not nearly as sympathetic as that earlier portrait, nor is he given the justifications that Anouilh gave Weaver to work with. When O’Kane, then, would put his arm around Antigone or his son Haimon, it felt out of place to the rest of what he was doing.
Binoche attending to her brother’s body was mesmerizing and moving. Her transitions, however, between her calm determination and a more emotional level were puzzlingly abrupt, I felt.
The fact that, like the supporting actors, Binoche eventually separates from her character to do messenger duties reinforced the production’s emphasis on the Kreon thread of the story (the man who is “late to learn” the implications of his decisions) and the fatalistic aspect of the tale, while the title character retained a degree of impenetrability — or mystery.
The production has a distinct and well-integrated point-of-view. The elements combine elegantly to create an approach defined by chilliness and, frequently, emotional detachment.
Whether the approach thwarts or enhances the impact of the piece is a Rorschach test which may not be impossible to predict; from this review, you might have a sense of whether the production will give you chills or give you hives. But the question defies easy consensus.
And isn’t that the kind of theatre that ought to be encouraged?
I encourage you to go, as I did, with someone you love — to argue with.
Antigone, by Sophocles, in a new translation by Anne Carson. Directed by Ivo van Hove. Featuring Juliette Binoche, Obi Abili, Kirsty Bushell, Samuel Edward-Cook, Finbar Lynch, Patrick O’Kane, Kathryn Pogson, Samuel Fromkin. Set and Lighting: Jan Versweyveld. Costumes: An D’Huys. Dramaturg: Peter van Kraaij. Video: Tal Yarden. Composition and Sound: Daneil Freitag. Produced by the Barbican and Les Theatres de la Ville de Luxembourg, in association with Toneelgroep Amsterdam. Co-produced by Theatre de la Ville-Paris, Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen and Edinburgh International Festival. Presented at The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Christpher Henley.