Friday, Oct. 9, 2015
Carolina Performing Arts at Memorial Hall

When Juliette Binoche insists the new production of Sophocles’ Antigone she stars in is really about Kreon, it sounds like the kind of counterintuitive reading actors use to freshen up classic works that seem to have run out of things to say. This 2,500-year-old mainstay of classical Greek tragedy certainly qualifies. Dozens of translations and adaptations—verse, prose, drama, opera, flamenco, on and on—have flourished in the last 150 years, by tough competition including the likes of Brecht, Heaney and Anouilh.

But when the play sold out Memorial Hall Oct. 9 and 10, it turned out that Binoche, the Oscar-winning screen and stage actor best known for The English Patient and Chocolat (I became a fan through Michael Haneke’s films), wasn’t exaggerating at all. It’s Kreon who talks and talks, Kreon who stalks around full of vigor and temper, Kreon who changes. Actor Patrick O’Kane wears the role convincingly, thrusting his angular, shaven head from a slick dark suit, insinuating and bellowing, threatening and cajoling. The focus on him makes Antigone‘s inexhaustible modern relevance stand out with fresh clarity. Civil disobedience never goes out of style, and in our moment, gods and state seem to recede behind a passion play on the downfall of executive power, a spectacle we admire.

Do you remember the story? Two brothers leading opposing sides in a Theban civil war slay each other, and Kreon, Thebes’ new ruler, decrees that the loyal one will be buried with honors, while the rebel, Polyneikes, will be deprived of holy rites and left to rot on the battlefield. But his sister, Antigone, buries him anyway, in fealty to the gods. When Kreon unearths the culprit and sentences her to death, it sets in motion a series of calamities that will complete his ruin before he listens to reason, offered most starkly in the prophecy of Teiresias (an eloquent Finbar Lynch). Kreon’s tragically delayed learning curve tautens the bowstring of Antigone’s pious death-wish.

In a mesmeric staging by director Ivo van Hove and set designer Jan Versweyveld, Antigone is a preemptive ghost in her own story, often performing grim rites alone on the stage or haunting its perimeters. Meanwhile, her government and family—unstably blended in the person of Kreon, her uncle—spar with her fate, the immovable, unknowable axis everything else spins around, like the black hole at the center of a galaxy. Accordingly, Binoche played the character as sometimes aggrieved, sometimes hysterical, but always keenly aware of her archetypal burden and bearing it heavily.

The set is a slow, majestic suspension for the actors, who mainly reside among a barricade of low black couches at the front of the stage. Above them, swallowing the auditorium, a huge screen covering the entire back wall shows empty deserts and people walking in slow motion on mundane, rainy streets, the vanished polis of antiquity and the modern one mingling in a cryptic dream. A large disc in the center slides in and out of place, creating sun and moon cycles, eclipses and blinding yellow flares. The black rectangle of a door below fashions a monolithic shape, like a stele. Binoche burns frankincense during a funeral ceremony, and its ancient musk wafts over the seats.

The new script’s creator, Anne Carson, is a classics scholar whose academic work informs her witty, modern, erudite poetry. On the page, her script looks and sounds much like her verse: terse, muscular and breathless, dashing toward unpunctuated end stops. Stripped-down compared to more florid translations of yore, it sounds biting in the actors’ mouths, its fleet flatness emphasizing lyrical turns. Carson winds a spring between formal oratory, concentrated in the foreboding Teiresias, and modern colloquial speech—a “stuff” here, an “entrepreneur” there. The guard who discovers Antigone’s crime gets all of the funniest lines; a winning Obi Abili drew laughs with his evasive, deadpan mumble.

The guard’s life is at risk if he doesn’t discover who buried Polyneikes, and the self-interest he blatantly demonstrates is the control group for a mass experiment in self-delusion. All the main characters pursue their own interests; most just cloak them in ideals. Kreon stands for the rule of law, which is convenient, since he is the law. Antigone sides with the gods, whose fussy ideas about funerals happen to support her desire to bury her brother. Haimon (Samuel Edward-Cook) argues for judgment and flexibility, a case-by-case mind-set. This suits a man whose motive is split between keeping his fiancée alive and staying clear of his father’s potentially fatal wrath.

In acknowledgement of their extreme gravity, Kreon and Antigone each have satellites locked in orbit. Kreon has his wife, Eurydike, played by a dark-gazed Kathryn Pogson, who keeps a helpless, brooding vigil on her husband’s folly. Antigone’s sister, Ismene (a stricken Kirsty Bushell), can do little but mournfully circle the unchanging force of Antigone’s martyrdom. The play inverts the the living and the dead: The former are entombed in ideals or laws; the latter are larger-than-life presences, bearing many responsibilities, among spectral persecutors and mourners.

In truth, it might have been subtitled “The Passion of the Kreon.” We witness a pedantic captain of empire who takes pleasure in intimidating underlings, lustily huffing through his nose, like a bull, refusing to take heed of any counsel but his own, until far too late. By the end, his bluster is completely broken down; he is “perfectly blended with pain.” Meanwhile, Antigone becomes most lucid only after her powerfully staged death scene. For her, death is a kind of maturity or self-realization.

Some reviewers of the touring production have criticized flat portions of Binoche’s speeches, and I noticed them, too, but I didn’t mind as much as they did. I was too rapt by the staging and sensations and sounds in a production that melded the mythic and contemporary into a persuasive, immersive and altogether captivating theatrical world.