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BWW Review: Ancient ANTIGONE Lives Again with Juliette Binoche

Juliette Binoche as Antigone

Stripped to the essentials - a stage, a handful of actors, a rapt audience - ANTIGONE recently proved once again its place in the pantheon of the world's finest tragic plays. The international production of the Sophokles drama made a short stop in Washington for the last leg of a national tour of select American cities, helmed by the Belgian theatre wunderkind Ivo van Hove. The director kept the stagecraft sparse with a focus on the bleak text, except for some quick and slick effects and impressive video imagery providing a backdrop. French film and theatre star Juliette Binoche led an ensemble of U.K.-based actors who clearly illuminated the timeless tale of family devotion versus the law.

This ANTIGONE also boasted a new translation of Sophokles' text by T.S. Eliot Prize-winning poet Anne Carson which weaves the ancient conflict between Antigone (daughter of Oedipus) and her uncle with a through line that connects to the present day.

It is too bad the tour only docked into the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater for a couple of days. First class productions of Greek tragedies do not come around that often, and this one had quite a pedigree. ANTIGONE came to Washington by way of London's Barbican Center and Les Théâtre de la Ville de Luxembourg, in association with Toneelgroep Amsterdam. Van Hove has directed the Amsterdam-based theatre ensemble since 2001 and will soon bring his award-winning production of Arthur Miller's A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE to New York, a play inspired by the classic Greek tragedy structure.

Juliette Binoche, in the title role, made a bold entrance facing the winds of change and a formidable sand storm, fitting for a play about the dust settling after a civil war and the question of a proper burial for her two brothers. Binoche gave a balanced performance that expressed the tension of her situation by an actress completely relaxed in her expressive body and voice. Binoche also had full command of Carson's new version of the text, keeping her Gallic accent at bay for most of the play. Her intensity, especially when standing up to Kreon was palpable.

As her more compliant sister Ismene, Kirsty Bushell was also blessed with a rich vocal instrument that

Ivo van Hove, Antigone, Juliette Binoche and Samuel Edward-Cook

conveyed her opposition to Binoche's renegade Antigone. Patrick O'Kane, as Kreon, gave a barely contained performance, always dancing on the edge of rage, a dangerous quality, and one that served the character well. Bushell and other actors served as the Greek chorus of advisers. Obi Abili, Samuel Edward-Cook, Finbar Lynch, and Kathryn Pogson also took turns as key figures in the tragedy - a messenger-guard, Teiresias the blind prophet, and Kreon's queen, Eurydike. Each of these performers helped bring the text alive with authority and clarity.

This version not only bridged the gap between the ancient world and today, there were glimmers of true theatrical brilliance on display, such as the burial of Polyneikes, the disgraced brother whose death prompts Kreon's edict that he shall not be given a proper burial. The law is on his side, thinks Kreon, not believing Antigone's loyalty to her sibling outweighs any of his decrees. This much is given to us by Sophokles, but Antigone's act of defiance, burying her brother takes place off-stage in the Greek original. This new script, under van Hove's razor-sharp direction, shows us the moment when Antigone prepares Polyneikes for burial. Later in the play, Antigone will enter her living tomb by the same center stage trapdoor, another memorable moment.

The nearly bare setting and lighting was designed by Jan Versweyveld. Adding a dynamic background were the video designs by Tal Yarden set the scene and served as a window into our present day. Timeless, barren vistas meld into scenes from a city morgue where Antigone's corpse is ultimately stored. The vision from the morgue gives way to views of a modern steel and glass cityscape. The neutral, contemporary costume designs by An D'Huys of further bridged eras.

The ancient Greeks desired for their tragedies to move audiences to a feeling of pity after following the protagonist on a harrowing journey in which the ultimate price is a personal sacrifice. The story lives on once again, in all it's visceral, pitiful glory.

ANTIGONE starring Juliette Binoche finished its run at the Kennedy Center on October 25. The Washington dates also mark the end of the American tour, having previously played the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), Chapel Hill's Carolina Performing Arts, and the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

PHOTO CREDIT: Jan Versweyveld

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From This Author Jeffrey Walker