A remarkable artwork will appear onstage again October 10 in Memorial Hall, as the Carolina Performing Arts presentation of Antigone repeats. You have probably seen at least one production of Antigone, but you are unlikely to have seen this one. Produced by a consortium of high-level European presenters and the Toneelgroep Amsterdam from a new translation by Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson, this is Sophokles for today. Directed by Ivo van Hove, it premiered in Luxembourg in February, has played in the houses of its producers, and is now touring with one of the finest actors of our era in the title role: Juliette Binoche.
Perhaps this is the way to say how good this production is: All actors and all components work at Binoche's level. Which is to say, they radiate power and uncertainty; they are adamantine and implacable and vulnerable; they howl with pain and make it your pain.
But all without excess.
Many productions of Antigone (the Jean Anouilh version, usually) go faster and more furiously toward the dreadful climax, starting at a high emotional level and going off the chart by the end. Director van Hove has done something very different here. He has the actors speak softly, demanding our silent attentiveness, and slows it all down, so that dark pauses bloom with foreboding, and we feel ourselves to be like the blind seer Teiresias, who can envision the terrible future but cannot divert the human actions that will bring it. The result is not only a devastatingly powerful version of this ancient play, but one of the most powerful stage productions one is likely to see, ever. Working cerebrally, from the poetic text, van Hove and the actors arrive at authentic emotion.
They are greatly aided in this by the design elements. A strip of set crosses the stage just under the proscenium – it looks like a coolly modern library, with low shelving and a big plump couch. Much of the speaking takes place here. This design has the intriguing effect of giving prominence to the Chorus – to the polity, the citizenry – giving it equal standing with the characters whose actions form the drama. Short flights of steps punctuate that frontal area, leading up to the main stage floor – again a narrow strip of space, but where most of the actions occur. Behind that, a narrow door opens to darkness. But the perceived space is nearly limitless: changing video imagery extends into the far distances of space and time. Midstage, a huge orb of light, ever-changing in color and intensity, marks the passage of time – the nights and scorching desert days. Playing low behind the low voices of the players, a sophisticated range of music intensifies the darkening mood, even as the huge sun burns ever brighter. It ends with an excerpt from Lou Reed's "Heroin," a painful song for Kreon's irremediable pain.
Carson's translation catches you again and again with its poesy, and with its variant interpretations and emphases from earlier versions. From the first scene, in which Ismene tells Antigone that she has her "thunder look," the relationship between the sisters carries more meaning; throughout the play, the men's disdain for girls and women rings out (it is an unsolvable conundrum, that men can love individual women, even following them into death, but have such distaste for women in general). Carson makes the play less of a contest of wills between Antigone and Kreon and more of a discourse on good governance. Nothing could be more timely. Yet we feel for the individuals so deeply – between this text and this director, with these actors, the stage is peopled with... people. Not signifiers. Even Kreon must be loved in all his flawed rigidity.
When Binoche's Antigone labors over the dead body of her brother, with her drooped head and unbendable backbone and her simple gestures with those white arms, her hands deft as always, I felt the great rushing of death's dark wind to my soul. As Sophokles notes, man has an answer for all questions but death. But it is the question from which we cannot turn away. We can only watch, from one side or the other, when it closes the door between the worlds, and, if we are still on this side, catch the scraps of wisdom artists have scavenged from the wind.
As of 11 a.m. October 10, there were a few tickets left for the repeat performance. For details, see the sidebar. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The Bullshead Bookshop is selling Carson's Antigone in the lobby, both the play (with a lovely translator's note) and an illustrated art book version, at a discount, before and after the performance. Reading the wonderful language is almost as good as seeing this production.