Ivo van Hove’s Antigone in BAM’s Next Wave Festival was the occasion for a post-show discussion between New York co-editors Molly Grogan and Richard Patterson.
Richard Patterson: I’ll start by stating my prior knowledge going into Friday’s show. I’d previously seen a production of Antigone at a small theatre in Brooklyn, which was a more radical interpretation but left me with a strong impression of the play. It featured mainly trans, genderqueer, and queer actors. I admired how the queer interpretation of the play played up the notion of “worthiness” that the play is really built around.
Molly Grogan: I’ve been involved in teaching Antigone to high school seniors and college freshman for about 15 years. It’s a play I know pretty well, but mostly as seen through the eyes of these late adolescents/early adults. Consequently, for me, the play is the go-to classic of the youth-speaks-truth-to-power theme. Sophocles’ Antigone is a girl of about 15 years old. Her defiance of Kreon is a startling undermining of his authority. Since it spells her death, it’s also a brash refusal of her future as a traditional Theban woman and the likely wife of Haemon and mother of his children. In short, Antigone’s raised middle finger to her king and in general the world of men, set all of Thebes talking and catapulted her out of the kingdom of innocence and into the limelight of public crusader and martyr in the service of the just. It’s a great play to explore power and its structures. politics, gender politics (as you mention), the tension between the sacred and the profane, religious freedom, duty, patriotism… It’s pretty loaded.
Unfortunately, van Hove’s ultra clean – and can I say “older”? – production with Juliette Binoche as Antigone avoided any conflict or contemporary issues and catered to a safe middle ground of patrons coming basically to see la Binoche. At 51, she strikes a commanding stage presence that draws on a long career in theater and film and obvious life experience. But Sophocles’ Antigone was not a seasoned politician or a woman of the world or even a particularly savvy thinker. She’s just a girl overwhelmed with grief and holding on to an unshakeable faith in the gods to make sense of her losses. By modern standards, she’d even be considered naive. But from the moment Binoche strides onto the stage looking like she owns the whole world, it’s clear that this is an Antigone that’s going to be a vehicle for an actress rather than an actress in the service of a text. Coming from an experimental director like van Hove, this was a disappointment.
RM: I had no idea Antigone was written to be so young. It made me curious to see how old previous interpreters of the role have been. The two times the play has appeared on Broadway, the actresses were 53 (in 1946) and 33 (in 1971 at Lincoln Center). So I suppose the role has a tradition of being played older. There’s something about Binoche that, for me, worked within the context of the production more so than she seems to have for you. I think there’s a kind of openness to her as an actress and to her performance that evokes that naive, youthful quality you describe as being the character’s ideal representation. While Binoche was strong to me, I thought that the cast all around was fantastic — from Obi Abili’s ability to inject humor into the play’s early scenes playing the Guard, to Kirsty Bushell’s confident Ismene and Patrick O’Kane’s Kreon, which built from a quiet near-whisper to a roar as the play drew nearer to its close.
MG: I’m not sure what I thought about the double casting, though. A dead Antigone suddenly morphs into Tiresias, a Chorus member becomes Eurydike from one line to the next. The only actor in a single role is O’Kane, and his Kreon is plenty of work: he is really that self-centered bully of a politician we love to see fall. The double casting lightened the visual load on stage, with fewer actors, and also forced us to listen harder to Bushell’s Ismene, who is a complicated character anyways, trying to keep a foot in both Antigone’s rebellion and Kreon’s law and order. It’s hard to always recognize when the actress is playing Ismeme and when she is speaking for the Chorus, but this heightens Ismene’s ambiguous position.
Van Hove also makes another interesting choice. Sophocles never shows us Antigone burying Polyneices but van Hove gives us Binoche burning incense, offering prayers and rubbing dirt over an inert male body while the Guard describes how he caught her in the act. This is what Ancient Greek audiences would have understood implicitly as Antigone’s “burial” of Polyneices; it was superfluous to show it. Today, however, we keep death and its rituals as far removed from us as possible, and burial immediately signifies six feet under. I liked this added scene as it also shows with gestures alone the power of Antigone’s love for her brother.
RP: I was also fascinated by the scene of Antigone preparing Polyneice’s body for burial, a moment full of ritual that was quite striking from the audience, especially since — at least where we were in the orchestra section — we could smell the incense. It was the second show in the past few weeks that I’d seen that used the smell of incense specifically for dramatic effect (the other being the Deaf West Spring Awakening on Broadway), and both uses drew me into the action on stage brilliantly.
Your point about van Hove is a good one. He’s got a strong directorial point of view that seems always to want to strip whatever play he’s currently tackling down to its bare essentials, and also to bring out the elemental quality of the piece. I think he’s managed to do that here pretty successfully. Anne Carson’s text helps in that regard. There are some moments where it feels almost anachronistically modern (as seems to be her wont), but for the most part her take on the play feels like a sharpening, a way to allow the play to be viewed from a fresh angle while keeping the spirit of the text in mind.
MG: I loved how Carson distilled Sophocles’ rhetorical flourishes into a modern plainsong. For example, the question of why the Guard delivering the news of Polyneice’s burial has risked coming to Kreon with the news, is settled in a self-deprecating, tossed-away line: “so lucky me / we all drew lots and here I am / I don’t want to see you you don’t want to see me but here I am.” End of story. Move on. Carson’s text always seems to be saying that, and even does, point black, during Antigone’s final goodbye to the world. “O tomb / O bridal chamber / O house in the ground forever / I go to you / I go to meet my people,” Antgone begins her final monologue, only to be shut up by Kreon: “get a move on.” It’s trite to wax on about the universality of the Greek tragedies, but Carson’s translation drives the point home without any hyperbole and is, for me, one of the strengths of the production.
RP: Another would have to be the set. Jan Versweyveld’s scenic design of a bright sunlike circle stares the audience down throughout, and Tal Yarden’s video design, which in the opening scene evokes the desert, made me think of the Middle East, where so much of the world’s warfare is centered now. From the get-go, I was on board with this take on the play. Then, as the characters stepped downstage into the separate space that Versweyveld delineated with its leather couch and shelves full of tapes and CDs, I liked the connections that the set design had to the text’s mentions of archives and memory later on. For van Hove, spare design seems to be key, but I thought that what was there really was working in the production’s favor.
MG: I also thought the set’s sun/moon trick – where the play opens with a crescent moon giving way to a blazing sun and ending in reverse, as if the action of the play was contained in a single day – was an ingenious shorthand for the forces of nature that prevail above all man’s follies. That set also underscored what was for me the crux of van Hove’s Antigone: Binoche’s heroine worked not as a girl or a woman or a seer or an agent of the gods but as a force of nature. She belongs to no one and returns to the earth upon which she walked so confidently in the play’s opening scene. She is an energy rather than a symbol, which also seems like a concession to modern audiences’ agnosticism (at least in van Hove’s Europe, not so much in the US, of course). But the video design was also very distracting at times, with images of a hooded young woman walking through a bleak cityscape of garbage dumpsters and parked cars. The modern and the timeless clashed a lot too.
RP: I do think you’re on to something with your take on the character of Antigone as a force (of nature?). She as a character is above the laws of man (could she be compared, in a twisted way, to a certain Christian clerk we’ve seen too much of on cable news lately?). Instead, she conjectures as to what the gods would want, a view that, for power-hungry mortals, brings the wrath of hubris down upon her, and, in turn, against Kreon as the representative of power in Thebes.
MG: The play’s theme of religion over politics is, as you say, a big question still, from Kentucky to Kabul. I would have liked to see van Hove, of all directors out there, take the opportunity of Antigone to challenge us a little more. Instead, he plays it safe all around, with star casting and big visuals. May the gods help him!