Tuesday, November 10, 2015

"Antigone" - Where compromise is sadly not an option

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Stephanie Berger

Branches which bend under the force of a raging storm are often able to survive, while those that hold fast and try to resist the oncoming onslaught are eventually snapped off and torn away. It is this premise of being unable to bend in the face of immense outside pressure that sets in motion the ultimate fate of the two main characters in Sophokles' drama Antigone. A production of which, using a new translation by Anne Carson and under the very capable directorial hands of Ivo van Hove, is about to finish a run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In ancient Thebes, Kreon (Patrick O'Kane), who has recently come to power after a bloody siege of the city, has decreed that the body of the traitor Polyneikes (Nathanial Jackson), who perished in the afore-mentioned struggle, be left above ground to rot. This edict being Kreon’s way of issuing a grisly warning to any who may not be loyal to him. It is also a warning that Polyneikes’ sister Antigone (Juliette Binoche), is resolved to ignore. This despite the desperate pleas from her sister Ismene (Kirsty Bushell) not to disobey Kreon’s commands. Not surprisingly, Kreon does not take the defying of his orders lightly, and it’s not long before Antigone is brought before him to face his wraith. All to the great relief of a Guard (Obi Abili), who was one of those charged with watching the body of Polyneikes in order to make sure Kreon’s orders were being followed. The scenes dealing with the Guard's predicament containing just about the only comedic moments in the entire production.

The events described above basically serve as the set up for the play's ultimate message as the outcome of Kreon’s inflexibility and Antigone’s determination - or is it Kreon’s determination and Antigone’s inflexibility - become evident. The two characters' positions being diametrically opposed, yet born of the same circumstances, and with each person possessing a similar and unyielding resolve. Things becoming even more complicated when one takes into account the familial connections involved. Antigone being Kreon’s niece as well as a daughter of Odipous; she also having lost two brothers in the battle for Thebes, while Kreon lost a son in the same conflict.

Despite Antigone being the title role, the show in actuality centers around the actions of Kreon. Something which becomes evident when he makes clear his position shortly after assuming power. At first offering a sort of conciliatory approach to those who may have opposed him in the past, as a way to attempt to bring together the different factions he now presides over. Yet despite the outwardly initial calm he projects, for him the entire matter has become far too personal. Kreon having not only lost a son during the siege, but also having to face the fact that some of his own family fought against him during the battle. Thus he is resolute in his decision regarding Polyneikes and anyone who dares try to bury him.

Director Ivo van Hove, who has reimagined more than one classic work over the years, (I particularly remember a version of Hedda Gabler he directed at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2004), goes the subtle route here to get his point across. Or at least as subtle as you can get considering the circumstances involved. The piece presented as a sort of warning against being too unyielding, no matter the position you take. At the same time, the story, for all of its dramatic punch, has a sort of detached feeling to it. One finding oneself applauding the strong characterizations, yet at the same time observing the entire production with more a spectator’s eye rather than the feeling of being right in the middle of the action. The audience thus also becoming in a way, a part of the chorus who ultimately passes judgment on what is unfolding before their eyes.

It’s also interesting to note how the issues surrounding the events presented, although not the events themselves, could easily be translated into numerous aspects of modern life. Kreon’s assuming control of the city could easily be re-imagined as a corporate takeover, with his initial encounter with some of the city's citizens easily taking place in a corporate boardroom of just about any Fortune 500 company. An effect helped in no small part by the cast being clad in modern dress for this production. The show also makes good use of various projections and images to give the impression that there are other elements involved than those physically seen on stage, and that we’re all part of something bigger than what we actually may see and understand.

As Kreon, O'Kane turns in a very strong and commanding performance. Whether the character makes a proclamation, threat or simple comment, there's no doubt he means exactly what he says. The actor presenting a firm and controlled presence with Kreon's movements, one often pressing down on a torrent of emotions he holds inside. This attitude thus making the character itself, as well as his ultimate fate, all the more believable. Ironically, Kreon is also the one person who learns the most during the course of the play. Though this knowledge comes with a heavy price.

Binoche does very well as Antigone. A person whom, even when she is off-stage, is talked about throughout. The character does come off as a little off-putting at first. This mainly because her first scene, where she forcefully declares her intentions to her sister, sets up everything that is to follow and with Antigone basically pushing herself right into audience's collective face. Despite all this early posturing, it is Binoche's later scenes which carry far more emotional weight. Including where she faces off against Kreon, as well as another pivotal sequence - which contains no actual dialogue. 

Carlson's translation comes off as surprisingly clean and simple as these things go, the text quite neatly putting the underlying message front and center. Carson's words going hand in hand with van Hove’s directorial efforts, both of which achieve their desired results without any flourishes or eccentricities. Just a story nicely told. The result is one quite fulfilling, both intellectually and emotionally.

Also in the cast are Samuel Edward-Cook, Finbar Lynch and Kathryn Pogson.

Featuring: Juliette Binoche (Antigone), Obi Abili (Guard/Chorus), Kirsty Bushell (Ismene/Chorus), Samuel Edward-Cook (Haimon/Chorus), Finbar Lynch (Teiresias/Chorus), Patrick O'Kane (Kreon), Kathryn Pogson (Eurydike/Chorus), Nathanial Jackson (Body of Polyneikes/Boy).

By Sophokles
In a new translation by Anne Carson
Barbican and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg

Set Design and Lighting: Jan Versweyveld
Costume Design: An d'Huys
Video Design: Tal Yarden
Dramaturgy by Peter van Kraaij
Composition and Sound Design: Daniel Freitag

Directed by Ivo van Hove

BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton Street

Closed: October 4, 2014

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