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After the Shouting Ends

By Jonathan Kalb

By Sophocles
BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton St., Brooklyn


No Greek myth has been more appropriated, repurposed, adapted and exploited than that of Antigone, unlucky Oedipus’s stubborn daughter, whom playwrights as diverse as Alfieri, Brecht, Anouilh, Hasenclever, Cocteau and Honegger have turned into a symbol so fluid she has stood for everything from patriotic fervor to dangerous lawlessness, fervid familial loyalty to inappropriate sibling attraction, longing for life to longing for death. And much, much more. In fact, all this complexity was immanent in the story’s earliest version, Sophocles’s tragedy, by far the most frequently produced version, though you’d never know that from the oversimplifications of typical modern productions.

I’ve seen this drama by Sophocles staged at least 8 times, and my overarching memory is of shouting and pontificating. Because Antigone insists on illegally burying her dead brother Polyneices (he and his brother Eteocles have killed one another in a civil war and their uncle Creon, the city leader, has declared the former an outlaw and forbidden his burial), the shouting often comes from Antigone herself, portrayed as a pig-headed ranter who justifies her choices in the bitterest and most passionate terms. Since the plot makes Creon act as a tyrant, though—he stands by his non-burial edict as if gnawing a bone—he too usually bellows and howls like a pre-Socratic Hitler, leaving himself nowhere to go as an actor or character except offstage—the sooner the better, one usually thinks. The favored conceptual setting for Antigone in my lifetime has always been fascism, with shallow directors seeing little more in the work than a one-note conflict of blunt totalitarianism versus valiant individual will.

What a sweet relief, then, what a rare and sublime pleasure to see the play intelligently nestled into an intense quietness that reveals its intricate moral complexity and contradictory beauties. Working with a gorgeously fluid, lucid and unobtrusively contemporary translation by the poet Anne Carson, the director Ivo van Hove has created an evening of heartbreaking intimacy. People only very rarely shout on his stage, and that goes for Creon (Patrick O’Kane, a fantastically contained, latent explosion on legs), Antigone (Juliette Binoche), and even the terrified guard who brings news of the illicit burial (Obi Abili). Everyone is so desperate to be heard, heeded and understood that they speak primarily in the intense, earnest and reflective tones of sober cabinet discussion and family debate—which, indeed, much of the play essentially is. You will never hear Sophocles’s criss-crossing themes, motivations and plot pressures presented more clearly, movingly, or open-mindedly as in this production. Nor are you likely to feel the relevance of the nearly 2500-year-old story to our current lives with such immediacy and nuance.

“I’m a strange new kind of in-between thing,” says Binoche’s ruggedly brittle Antigone before exiting to her doom near the end. In a way that quality of “in-between-ness” is the crux of the evening. She is referring to her status as a sort of living dead person, but she might as well also be speaking of her condition as a faithful citizen and a defiant outlaw, a devoted sister and a guilt-ridden product of incest. Every time you expect a discussion to rise in volume and anger Van Hove keeps it restrained and confidential, including Creon’s sentence of death while holding his niece against his shoulder, or his refusal of his son Haimon’s pleas for Antigone’s life while kissing the boy’s head (he’s engaged to her). Even corpses don’t stay wholly inanimate on Van Hove’s stage. The recently dead gently embrace and address others as if to strew the seed of Antigone’s remark, “I am someone born to share in love, not hatred.” During the gracefully simple funeral ritual she performs for her fallen brother—a mere matter of strewing a few flowers, pouring oil and scattering earth on his horribly bruised skin—the dead boy almost imperceptibly raises his head to meet her caress.

All this takes place in a spare, vaguely contemporary space designed by Van Hove’s longtime collaborator Jan Versweyveld—a leather couch and neatly stocked shelves of stored records downstage and a plain grey carpeted platform and wall upstage where a large lighted circle is exposed and then concealed by a solid disc. The wall and circle display nonstop projections that include scudding clouds, desert landscapes, modern industrial workers and ultimately a large image of dead Antigone. The costumes too are wholly contemporary, which (along with Carson’s text) drives home the relevance of the tale to terrorism, fundamentalism, fear-mongering politics and sundry other forms of contemporary Creon-ism. A nearly nonstop, predominantly placid musical underscore ranges from Shostakovich, Morton Feldman and Henryk Gorecki to Arvo Part and (at the very end) Lou Reed, which also mildly spices the action with contemporary tones.

The great achievement of this production is not in its tastefulness, though, but rather in its perception of the full, complex humanity of Sophocles’s characters and the myth built around them. This perception could only have been made without hysteria, exaggeration or even specific political tendency. That is why it's able to lay bare the grandeur of Antigone itself rather than anything so puny or feeble as a few pathetic, facile answers to the author's huge, unanswerable questions.


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