As Ivo Van Hove’s Antigone arrives to Kennedy Center to a much buzzed and very short run (you only have through the 25th to see it) on the wings of much European buzz and mixed NY reviews, the first question you have to ask yourself is: “Would I be going to see Antigone if Juliette Binoche (and what seems like half the supporting cast of Game of Thrones-ed) were not in it?”
And it is important to be honest with yourself. Because, let’s face it, Greek tragedy is what it is, and as amazing and visceral and timeless as it can be, it is also a harsh and challenging way to spend even a trim 100 minutes (no intermission) in the theatre.
The story is (presumably) a well known one: Antigone, one of Oedipus’ daughters has now lost her brothers too. When one of them is declared a traitor by her uncle, and refused an honorable funeral, she forges ahead with the ceremony herself, believing that the laws that are fundamentally wrong in her view are fundamentally wrong period, paying the ultimate price in the process. It is a story of rights, or family, of a human vs government, and as such timeless. Van Hove cites the Malaysian airplane crash as an impetus for his modernized version, but the right to marry or bury your loved ones in a dignified manner, is something Americans can relate to from both sides of the coin.
Much here is reimagined. Anne Carson’s new translation of the classic text is clear and lovely and even allows for moments of levity (mainly in the hands of Obi Abili’s Guard). The staging is stark and effective, with a giant looming sun staring at both the cast and the audience from the center of the stage, demanding you to look, even when it might hurt to do so. The hypnotic score (culminating in Lou Reed’s Heroin) drives the assumed points to a steady head. The two level separation between the dessert and the bland offices when Creon rules is effective, and the costumes by Ann D’Huys are lovely. And the cast, because we obviously have to discuss the cast, throws themselves in heart first.
Every actor (Patrick O’Krane’s Kreon aside), in a decision that is both refreshing and possibly confusing to those who are not familiar with Sophokles’ text already, is thrown an additional challenge: their role aside, the lines meant for the chorus are shared by them as well. This lands some of Sophokles’ lines a deeply personal note, but also keeps the audience guessing: Binoche herself, in one pivotal instance, plays both her dead self and the messenger bringing the news of her death to the other players.
She, of course, is as lovely as you expect. When she enters the scene originally, her porcelain face scrubbed of make-up, her body wrapped in gauzy black, her short hair blowing in the stark desert wind machine wind, the audience can’t help but spontaneously break into applause. When she throws herself at Kreon’s feet exclaiming for what is right in her heart of hearts, you can’t help but understand why she IS one of the greatest actresses working in the world today. With every gesture she makes, you are reminded of her vulnerability, her passion, her expressiveness – all things that make her seemingly custom built to play one of the greatest tragic characters ever committed to page and screen.
And yet, the way Van Hove handles her and the rest of the production creates a certain detachment with the audience that no matter how true some of the feelings on stage are, cannot be overcome. Antigone is a story that can be either deeply personal or a commentary on the futileness of centralized authority, and striking a balance between the two can be tricky, and Van Hove simply lacks the directorial empathy to veer on the personal. This is a production that invites debate, not feeling. I can’t imagine anyone shedding a tear during this production, but can imagine a lively discussion of whether “Kim Davis is a modern Antigone” across the Washingtonian party lines and over cocktails after the performance. Which, come to think of it, may make it a perfect DC staging of a classic play.
That, and, of course, the bragging rights of seeing Binoche in as intimate of a setting as we can ever hope (the show is playing at the Eisenhower, and the cast is SO CLOSE to us, we almost feel we can touch them).