Antigone — the heroine of Sophocles’ play of the same name — is one of the most comprehensibly lauded characters in history. She’s both a feminist figure from 441 BC — over 2000 years before the word “feminism” would first appear in French — and, more generally, one of the earliest figures of protest in documented theater.
Through her personal revolution against her uncle, who has ordered her dead brother’s body to be left unburied — as a fleshy scarecrow for insurgents — Antigone becomes a political martyr, whose politics are grounded in the importance of familial loyalty. With her values derived from such a visceral place, she is particularly sympathetic. For on top of being admirably adamant and inflammatory, she’s also just a sensitive person looking after her bro[‘s fetid corpse].
Depictions of her fearless perfection (Hegel, for example, called her “heavenly…that noblest of figures that ever appeared on earth”) can make Sophocles’ play hard to enjoy — it reads almost like a tragic but inspirational biopic. A new version of the play, stopping at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the otherwise often exciting Next Wave Festival, is mediocre in pretty much every way — but its mediocrity makes for a less self-congratulatory/cathartic experience of the sad story of a personal uprising, as viewed from a cushioned chair.
Directed by theatrical deconstructionist superstar Ivo Van Hove, translated by Canadian poet Anne Carson and starring Juliette Binoche in the eponymous role, the play suffers from an odd combination of tonal self-importance and intentional (but clunkily executed) modern banalization. Still, through a series of not-so-palatable choices and underwhelming performances, it oddly does seem to interrogate and humanize Antigone’s acts.
The acting in Van Hove’s production — with the exception of the excellent Kirsty Bushell, who plays Ismene, and Obi Abili’s playful Guard — gets caught up in a strange mix of stiffness and tragedian mugging, exposing audiences to moments where it seems like the director said, “be gut-wrenching here.” What’s intriguing, however, is how Van Hove’s trademark aesthetic half-bakedness counters the performances’ unmitigated air of “tragedy” — the not-so-well-staged fits of moaning — with Brechtian estrangement. (Or, as Brecht described it, “playing in such a way that the audience [is] hindered from simply identifying itself with the characters in the play” so that they can, instead, “adopt an attitude of inquiry and criticism.”) This is achieved here through both the (unintentional) mediocre acting and (deliberately) minimal, and unsatisfying, design choices.
All of the characters wear unostentatious contemporary dress, and the set is designed, with an avoidance of specificity and cultural signifiers, to be only mildly suggestive of an office lobby and a terrifyingly open desert terrain. (Suggestive, really, is the only way to describe any of the aesthetic choices.) The terrain itself — already estranging — changes, at times becoming a projected cityscape, or a series of pedestrians walking down a street. Tellingly, they’re blurred and set in slow motion, and look like they could either be protestors or people dully marching towards their office jobs.
Another form of estrangement from the original play’s visceral impact comes largely from Carson’s unconventional translation, which splits the ensemble chorus up between individual characters. Even after Antigone meets her (empowering) tragic end — by committing suicide rather than letting her sentence to a slow death locked in a cave kill her — Binoche returns to deliver the monologue Sophocles originally wrote for the Messenger.
The delegation of chorus members’ and small characters’ lines to others allows the actors to break spacial boundaries, also denying the audience the cathartic tragedy of seeing both an iconic character and iconic actress disappear from the stage, into a politicized tragic memory. (Importance is also usually placed on the fact that unlike, say, the women of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata — written an estimated 30-or-so years later — the weight of Antigone usually rests overwhelmingly on her as an individual leading a personal crusade: not only is she representative of the essence of rebellion, but hers is a rebellion of one. The blurring of characters here also, to an extent, plays with that form of iconography.)
Among Binoche’s lines — many of which are hurled in overemphasis — the few that bear emotional clarity underscore the human limitations to Antigone’s activism, making her less a universal hero than one, understandably, with her own agenda based very much on her own familial biases:
“would I have done it for a husband or a child
my answer is no I would not
what law requires this
a husband or a child can be replaced
but who can grow me a new brother”
And in the same scene, the words “who will lament me/no one will lament me” sound more humanly helpless than defiant: there is, thankfully, uncertainty to her martyrdom. In the play’s one true stroke of genius, the last scene, where the King crumples under the realization that his tyranny has led to the suicides not just of his disobedient niece, but also his son (who was marrying her), and his wife (who kills herself when she hears the news), The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” plays. Perhaps more than any other gesture onstage here — and perhaps more than any other gesture you’ll affiliate with Antigone — the homophonic nature of the title with “heroine” pairs suicide (evoked in the song’s self-destructive lyrics: “Heroin, be the death of me”) with heroism. Sonically, meanwhile, it bears the sounds of a numb nihilism.
At the end of the play, with the King crying and curled up on one of the austere leather sofas, the audience wonders what this bloodbath will change. The King may have been taught a lesson through total devastation, but as the repetitive song plays, and as the projection returns to where it began, it’s hard not to remember that the King’s own reign began with a civil war between the brothers who caused this mess. It’s impossible to tell whether the tragedy’s endgame is hope or repeated tragedy. Van Hove’s director’s note declares that his view of Antigone is that it begin as a play “about politics and public policies and ends as a play about the helplessness of humans” — that it’s “ambivalent and dark.” Fittingly, the song “Heroin” ends with the line, “And I guess I just don’t know.”
Large-scale productions of protest plays at expensive playhouses only underscore the fact that the traditional, proscenium theater space is now a more efficient place to ruminate on political action than to incite it. Thus, the most exciting option for a large-scale Antigone seems one that, to an extent, examines Antigone’s rebellion as both noble and flawed, ambiguous in its success or its futility amidst inevitably repeating histories; after all, we all know that tyranny didn’t end with a fictional character in 441 BC. Perhaps the tragedy of its futility is more angering, and more likely to get a rise out of people, than a depiction of a wholly successful, wholly selfless martyrization.
People — through Hegel, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Antigone Rising and other intellectual heroes who’ve continued to extoll Antigone’s heroism through the ages — often attend productions of the play not only expecting to respect her, but to be magnetized by her. There seems an idealistic hope, based on what the name “Antigone” evokes, that the actress portraying her will be both the past and future, the most human yet all-encompassing challenge to the establishment and upholder of family values. It’s not easy — if not impossible — to live up to. This version proves it, at times with intentional dullness, and at times with accidental intrigue.