The international production of Antigone being performed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall on Oct. 9th and 10th as part of the Carolina Performing Arts series, has an unquestionable pedigree. The Belgium-born director, Ivo van Hove, is among the brightest names in theater today (his Olivier Award-winning A View From the Bridge is set to transfer from London’s Young Vic to Broadway). The translator, Anne Carson, recently adapted The Bakkhai as part of the red-hot Almeida Theatre’s summer Greek season.
The eponymous role is played by the almost legendary Juliette Binoche, who could easily have settled into the position of “Revered Film Goddess” after her early work in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Damage, and the extraordinary Krzysztof Kieslowski trilogy Three Colors. She also won an Oscar® for The English Patient. But she has pushed herself to work in theater, and not just theater, but the avant garde, in plays such as Luigi Pirandello’s Naked at the small but mighty Almeida, Harold Pinter’s Betrayal on Broadway, and a version of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie at the Barbican in London.
Binoche is to be commended, even cheered, for devoting so much of her energy and influence in an effort to shape the public’s perception of theater in a way that challenges the expected. But I’m not sure this production is going to help.
The actors are talented, charismatic, and effective. The translation is clear, with several extraordinary lines that seemed to stop the audience’s collective breathe (“Challenging the system is good and all, but authority is authority” or “A son or a husband can be replaced. But how do you replace a brother?”).
At the end, the audience rose to their feet and cheered on four curtain calls, which seemed to surprise and delight the cast. But something about the production feels overly restrained; the emotional simmer that Ivo van Hove and the cast build throughout the evening is never allowed to boil over. The cast feels like a magnificent racehorse, pacing and fretting expectantly on the day of competition.
Juliette Binoche brings her usual quiet dignity, resolve, and grace to the part. She’s probably a decade past the role, though you never care. But Patrick O’Kane’s Kreon seems on the boyish side, and that combination of casting makes their “unstoppable-force-meets-immovable-object” scenes lack certain significance. Van Hove has directed O’Kane to play menace to make up for the actor’s lack of experience and weight, and the result feels to me more like Kreon as rising mob boss than a King with the political skills to have silenced his critics as thoroughly as the script would indicate.
Toward that end of the play, the direction asks the other talented actors, particularly Finbar Lynch’s Teiresias and Kathryn Pogson’s Eurydike to play almost every scene like it was taking place in the teacher’s lounge at the local community college. You can sense the political tension simmering just below the surface, but no one dares let their emotions spill over. Intellectually, that is an interesting idea. Dramatically, it fails to engage over the full extent of the 90-minute, intermissionless act. Only in the early scene between Antigone and Eurydike do the emotions on display seem to rise to match the magnitude of the occasion.
I’m also unconvinced by Jan Versweyveld’s scenery, which frankly feels like something you might see at a very well-done high school production of Antigone. There are platforms everywhere, and a simple back wall onto which is projected sky, clouds, the occasional dimly viewed citizens of Kreon’s City-State, and finally an ominous urban nightscape. I suspect the platform, which covers 80 percent of the stage and elevates it about three feet off the floor, is there to cover an elevator trap that allows the body of Antigone’s dead brother, Polyneikes (Kyle Patrick) to appear and disappear from view.
Memorial Hall is much more like a high school auditorium than a modern theater; its ground floor seats have almost no rake and require, even without Versweyveld’s platforming, a fairly severe upward tilt of the head. The scenery is at odds with van Hove’s otherwise very contained, minimalist take on the story.
Obi Abili’s Guard is a comedic presence throughout the evening and a welcome one. As the young man whose bad luck led him to discover Polyneikes’ buried body, his effort to maintain calm in the face of Kreon’s mounting anger (and final assertion that if the Guard cannot find out who buried the body, the King will hold the Guard responsible) communicates, with ever word and gesture: “Don’t shoot the messenger!” It is a performance that I suspect most of the audience will remember long after the rest of the production has receded from memory. I also suspect Mr. Abili is on his way to much larger parts onstage and in film in the very near future.
Juliette Binoche’s Antigone is virtually without fault. In an early stand at London’s vast Barbican, several critics suggested that her voice was not strong enough. That did not seem to be the case on Friday night. The entire production is mic-ed up, so lack of vocal energy is not a problem. There is one moment near the end of the play when van Hove has Binoche move down to the stage apron, sit and talk directly to us. Her voice did not seem to be amplified at that moment and the effect was interesting and slightly startling. In that moment, van Hove, intentionally or otherwise, demonstrated that the human voice, unfiltered, is at the core of the theater experience, while Binoche proved her vocal instrument up to the task.
Antigone is a play that has lasted nearly 2,500 years. It continues to speak to us about questions that are central to our existence. What are the limits of authority? When does an individual have a right to challenge authority? How ought a leader to respond to a challenge? These and other questions asked by Sophocles will fascinate and haunt us as long as we roam the Earth.
But in this production, director Ivo van Hove seems to get in the way of the asking of those questions as he demonstrates to us again and again how clever he is (like the inexplicable tossing in of The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” at the end of the play), how many different effects he can achieve, and how thorough his grip is on the reins of this fine company of actors.
Each of those talents is admirable in a director, but each has to be used judiciously and with purpose. This cast feels like it wants to run, but the stable door remains firmly shut.
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 10th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Kate Dobbs Ariail: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=7622; Oct. 7th Durham, NC Indy Week preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/juliette-binoche-stars-in-a-radical-new-antigone-at-carolina-performing-arts/Content?oid=4794482; Sept. 28th Washington, DC NPR interview with Juliette Binoche, conducted by Terry Gross for “Fresh Air”: http://www.npr.org/2015/09/28/443484430/from-ingenue-to-antigone-juliette-binoche-discusses-acting-aging-and-family; Sept. 28th New York, NY New York Times review by Ben Brantley: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/28/theater/review-in-antigone-at-bam-agony-and-despair-in-inexorable-motion.html; and Sept. 24th New York, NY Wall Street Journal interview with Juliette Binoche, conducted by Pia Catton: http://www.wsj.com/articles/juliette-binoche-on-interpreting-antigone-for-today-1443124373. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Oct. 8th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2015/10/juliette-binoche-will-star-in-sophocles-antigone-on-oct-9th-and-10th-in-unc-chapel-hills-memorial-hall/.)
Carolina Performing Arts presents ANTIGONE, featuring Juliette Binoche and directed by Ivo van Hove, at 8 p.m. Oct. 10 in Memorial Hall, 114 E. Cameron Ave., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $44 and up ($10 UNC students).
BOX OFFICE: 919-843-3333 or https://www.carolinaperformingarts.org/events-on-sale/.
SHOW: https://www.carolinaperformingarts.org/ros_perf_series/antigone-by-sophokles-featuring-juliette-binoche-directed-by-ivo-van-hove/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/875374609176661/.
PRESENTER: http://www.carolinaperformingarts.org/, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Carolina-Performing-Arts/9560250967, https://twitter.com/uncperformarts, and https://www.youtube.com/user/UNCPerformArts.
Antigone (c. 441 BC tragedy): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antigone_%28Sophocles_play%29 (Wikipedia).
Sophocles, a.k.a. Sophokles (Greek tragedian, c. 496-c.406 BC): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophocles (Wikipedia).
Anne Carson (Canadian poet and translator): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Carson (Wikipedia).
Barbican (producer): http://www.barbican.org.uk/ (official website),
Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg (producer): http://www.theatres.lu/ (official website),
Toneelgroep Amsterdam (associate producer): http://tga.nl/en (official website) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toneelgroep_Amsterdam (Wikipedia).
Ivo van Hove (Belgian theater director): http://tga.nl/en/employees/ivo-van-hove (Toneelgroep Amsterdam bio) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivo_van_Hove (Wikipedia).
Juliette Binoche (French actress): http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000300/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juliette_Binoche (Wikipedia).
Raleigh, NC director and actor Jerome Davis and his wife, Simmie Kastner, founded Burning Coal Theatre Company in 1985. For Burning Coal, Davis has directed Rat in the Skull, Winding the Ball (in Raleigh and New York City), The Steward of Christendom, Hamlet, Night and Day, David Edgar’s Iron Curtain Trilogy (in Raleigh and London), Company, Shining City, The Weir and St. Nicholas (the last as an actor), The Road to Mecca, Juno & the Paycock, The Man Who Tried to Save the World (as playwright), Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Taming of the Shrew, Inherit the Wind, Hysteria, 1960, The Seafarer, Enron, Jude the Obscure Parts 1 & 2 and Sunday in the Park with George. He has also directed Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw for the North Carolina Opera, Of Mice and Men for Temple Theatre in Sanford, and Red for the Actors Guild of Lexington. Jerry Davis has studied with Uta Hagen, Nikos Psacharapolous, and Julie Bovasso. He has studied or worked with Adrian Hall, Richard Jenkins, Hope Davis, Ellen Burstyn, Oliver Platt, Amanda Peet and Ralph Waite. He has worked at Trinity Rep in Providence; NJ Shakespeare; People’s Light & Theatre, near Philadelphia, the Phoenix Theatre at SUNY/Purchase; Avalon Rep; the Mint; Columbia University; and many others. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.