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Antigone: Theater review by Helen Shaw
“You have your thunder look,” says Ismene, looking into her sister's furious face, and in Ivo van Hove's modern-dress Antigone at BAM, those words echo. In fact, in almost every moment, Van Hove's version of Sophocles' tragedy throbs with nature's terrors: real winds blow, clouds teem, the earth spits out bodies. In a production anchored by a tremendous Patrick O'Kane, the director elides momentarily the difference between natural disaster and the storms we make ourselves. At its best, this production sweeps away 3000 years of knowledge to deliver us at the feet of angry gods. It's flawed, absolutely, but also too rare to miss.
The story is ancient and familiar: Antigone buries her “traitor” brother despite her uncle-tyrant Kreon, yet it feels fresh here, as if we're hearing it for the first time. This new life begins with poet Anne Carson's translation, which gusts between idioms; in one moment, we're on solid ground (“What's up, Teiresias?”), only to be plunged into pitch-black lyric. Juliette Binoche is an Antigone in continual tempest, and O'Kane—gleamingly bald and frighteningly unpredictable—makes his Kreon a kind of oily, reptilian tornado. There's even earth-magic in the surroundings: Jan Versweyveld's set includes a glowing oculus, a moon that ends the play massively eclipsed.
The play contains a famous ode to (or lament for) man, which contains a notoriously difficult word to translate. Does Sophocles think man is a “wonder?” Or is he “terrible?" Carson refracts this choral passage; she includes all the possible translations, calling man “strange / terrible / clever / wondrous / monstrous / marvelous / dreadful / awful / and / weird.” Carson's striking ambivalence, her refusal to select just one word, wonderfully infects the production: Van Hove heavily mics the actors, both distancing us and beckoning us intimately close. And as much as we're ravished by Binoche's vulnerability, her accent creates a fascinating distance at the level of language itself.
Van Hove has an elegant (if occasionally disorienting) solution to the chorus, which consists of just five people. Professionally attired men and women discuss the madness happening to the royal family, only to turn into characters themselves. After her pained defense of Antigone, Ismene (Kirsty Bushell) is absorbed back into the group; a man we've known as a mild-mannered Theban functionary suddenly becomes the furious seer Teiresias (Finbar Lynch). All five actors do tremendous work, but if there's a first among equals here, it's Bushell—her air of deep sympathy manages to color the rest of the production.
Indeed, despite its darkness, this version is a particularly loving take on the Sophocles, pregnant with pity and understanding. The mics allow the performers to whisper their thoughts low, and we lean forward to hear them. Even Antigone herself, the watchword for passionate stubbornness, takes a moment to look back kindly at the uncle who has killed her.
This Antigone originated as a long-considered coproduction between (among others) the Barbican and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg, and it reaches us years after Van Hove staged it—yet, unfortunately, there's still a sense of haste in some of his choices. The fundamentals of the production, including the performances and treatment of Carson's ravishing text, are beautiful. But its framing is haphazard, particularly the ending, which threatens to unravel the mysteries already spun. Tal Yarden's video backdrops—slow-mo images of people walking through winter streets—are nicely executed but add very little. And the last two minutes of the show so badly misuse the projection component (we're suddenly watching a clip of what seems to be Law and Order: Greek Tragedy Unit), it was hard not to protest aloud. Such a quantity of the wonderful (strange, terrible, clever, etc.) had gone before! Yet now we watched violence happening to something sacred. The aesthetic turn was violent enough to feel like sacrilege; perhaps some evening, another Antigone will speak out.—Helen Shaw
BAM Harvey Theater (Off Broadway). By Sophocles. Translated by Anne Carson. Directed by Ivo Van Hove. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.