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Modern-day productions of Greek tragedies usually emphasize the histrionic. Such is not the case with in-demand director Ivo van Hove‘s take on Sophokles‘ (the Greek spelling is used) classic, which stars Oscar-winning actress Juliette Binoche and now comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of its international tour. Thoughtful, measured and more than a little dull, this Antigone is not so much melodrama as meh-drama.
Written in 441 B.C., the tragedy depicts the conflict between the title character, desperate to bury with honor the body of her brother Polyneikes who was killed in a civil war, and her uncle Kreon (Patrick O’Kane), the newly installed ruler of Thebes, who demands that the traitor’s corpse be left out to rot and get picked over by animals.
Exploring, among many themes, the conflicting rights of the individual versus the state, the work still has powerful resonance. In interviews, Binoche compares the Antigone clash to the recent controversy over the burial of the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, while van Hove cites the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 tragedy, in which the victims’ bodies were left exposed in an open field for over a week.
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But despite its contemporary relevance, the play suffers here from the mannered, modernistic approach of the acclaimed Belgian director, whose hit London revival of Arthur Miller‘s A View From the Bridge is shortly due on Broadway, along with a starry revival of The Crucible and an off-Broadway collaboration with David Bowie on Lazarus.
It’s not just the modern dress and the set featuring Design Within Reach-style furniture, or the ever-trendy video projections, in this case of images ranging from desert sandscapes to blurry urban crowds moving in slow motion. It’s more that the staging moves at a glacial pace, with the actors too often reciting their lines in a soft-spoken monotone that quickly proves tedious. Most of them double as members of the Chorus, who utter their pronouncements as if they were at a coffee klatch. Even the more powerful scenes often barely register, with the exception of the final moments, which are appreciably enhanced by a blasting of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.”
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Looking impossibly gorgeous, the black-clad Binoche makes for a particularly chic Antigone (although that’s presumably not what the playwright intended) and she delivers an intense turn. O’Kane is an understated but still formidable presence as the black-suited Kreon, whose bald pate, like those of most of the actors, suggests that the men in ancient Greece were uncommonly follically challenged. Also particularly impressive are Kirsty Bushell as Antigone’s sister, who refuses to join her in her moral stand; Finbar Lynch as the blind seer Teiresias, who doesn’t refrain from slapping Kreon around; and Obi Abili, who mines unexpected humor as the Guard forced to deliver uncomfortable messages.
Poet Anne Carson‘s colloquial new translation is accessible and forceful, even if such phrases as “I’m off the hook” and “Well, that was all pretty plausible” prove jarring in context.
Featuring a giant disc that alternately suggests the sun and the moon, the production looks impeccable. But that’s not necessarily an adjective that should be applied to this searing, timeless drama.
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Obi Abili, Kirsty Bushell, Sameul Edward-Cook, Finbar Lynch, Patrick O’Kane, Kathryn Pogson, Nathaniel Jackson
Translation: Anne Carson
Director: Ivo van Hove
Set and lighting designer: Jan Versweyveld
Video designer: Tal Yarden
Music and sound designer: Daniel Freitag
Costume designer: An d’Huys
Production: Barbican, Les Theatres de la Ville de Luxembourg
Presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music
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