ANTIGONE is the most sedate of the productions I have seen directed by Ivo van Hove, but it might be the most deeply thought-provoking. There is little to be gained from it without thought. It hasn’t the sadism of his Hedda Gabler, the pain of his Cries and Whispers, the angst of his Scenes from a Marriage, or the delirium of his Roman Tragedies. Those were, each of them, formally challenging, and in their way distancing, but intensely physical, in the viscera of the acting, and, more than once, the immersion of the audience in the environs of the drama.
ANTIGONE is, by contrast, pictorial, dominated by an abstraction of the sun, not quite static, for the light along its penumbra shifts, but nearly. One is tempted to call it, conventionally, merciless, and the impulse under its gaze is to elide nuance, to see things with stark intellectual purity, holding emotion to a minimum and the body in check. Perhaps tragedy is the forced contemplation of one’s own condition, and if that is the case, the lack of physical engagement in this production makes the point. It seems to say that if anything of us survives time, it will have nothing to do with the material in us, but something of the moral, the ethical, or the philosophical.
Sophokles’ play (Anne Carson’s translation renders its Greek with k’s instead of c’s) concerns the burial of bodies, one dead and another still living. It may, as van Hove says in the program notes, be about the respect due to the dead in how their bodies are treated (alluding to the victims – many Dutch, for whose Toneelgroep theater van Hove directs – of the Malaysian airliner shot down over the Ukraine). But everything in the production suggests an alienation of the body from the person, from the amplification of the voices, to the shifting of the actors between choral and individual speakers, to the vacuity of the struggle between Antigone and Kreon, the uncle-ruler who decrees that Polyneikes, her traitor brother, be left unburied. It is a debate that calls to mind a phrase of Patricia Highsmith’s, “a game for the living,” concern for the dead as an occupation of survivors in which the dead, who are gone forever, have no stake.
It is as though Antigone, who seeks her own death, would have, on this stage, no stake either. If Sophokles’ tragedy is about the importance of the body to the person, van Hove’s version ironically denies it. The body is important, after death, to everyone but the person. Antigone’s corpse, like her brother’s before her, will bear meaning to those who remain, not to her. It is, then, significant that her words emanate, in this play about bodies at the BAM Harvey Theater, from one of the world’s most recognizable physiques. How many in the audience are there just to see Juliette Binoche, live, as a bodily presence, rather than onscreen, can’t be known, but it is no small part of the production’s draw, and it enriches and complicates the identification of the body with the person that van Hove makes problematic.
Binoche, among the greatest of international film actors and a fine stage performer, has thrilled me before at the same venue. Her In-I, directed and performed with Akram Khan in 2009, was one of the noblest, most generous and committed performances, of any sort, that I have seen on any stage. In her Antigone, the generosity is there, and the commitment, but it has, in its deliberate physical restraint, a different, and surpassingly ironic, effect. It is easy, given that restraint, to look upon her as an image, to take in her features, her body before us. Her face is so finely formed, and our familiarity with it so great, that she might as well be in close-up, no matter how far from the stage we are seated. She is also seen in projection, laid out as a corpse, a screen image of her body on the stage. Her breath control is remarkable, nothing to betray the life of Binoche in the corpse of Antigone. And yet we know that, while “Antigone” is dead, it is Binoche before us, living, an actor inseparable, given the nature of the cinema, from her physical self – if such there is.
Van Hove has layered, and ironized, the theme of body identity at the heart of Sophokles’ tragedy, and Binoche in the lead redoubles the irony. The cast as a whole, it should be added, maintains an ironic distance. All but Patrick O’Kane, as a mordant Kreon, switch, like interchangeable bodies, between specific role and the chorus, including Samuel Edward-Cook as Haimon, Finbar Lynch as Teresius, Kathryn Pogson as Eurydike, and Nathaniel Jackson, as the Body of Polyneikes, no less. Obi Abili, as a guard delivering bad news, leavens the tragedy with a touch of humor, and Kirsty Bushnell brings a notable ease to Ismene, Antigone’s sister. The austere set, with the great round sun dead center, is by Jan Vesweyveld, and it invites us, from the start, to gaze reflectively upon what we see, and take nothing, not even what, or who, we came to see, or our own bodies in the chairs we sit in, for granted.