"If a man puts family or friends ahead of fatherland I count him absolutely good for nothing," says absolutist ruler Kreon at the beginning of Ivo van Hove's new production of Sophocles' Antigone, running through October 4 at BAM's Harvey Theater. The "good for nothing" that will give him trouble, however, is a woman. In a white-hot performance as the consummate rebel of Greek literature, Juliette Binoche plays Antigone, a daughter of Oedipus whose conscience compels her to flout the law. Without updating the play itself, van Hove sets this tale of conformity and rebellion in the here and now and gives it trenchant modern-day significance.
At the heart of Antigone is an act of defiance that pits a citizen against the state. Before the play begins, Oedipus, the king of Thebes, has died, and his two sons, the exile Polyneikes and the defender of the city Eteokles, kill each other in battle. Kreon (Patrick O'Kane), brother-in-law of Oedipus, assumes control of the city and decrees that the body of the traitor Polyneikes must suffer the indignity of remaining unburied. Anyone who defies this edict will be put to death.
Defying Kreon, Antigone tends to her brother's body, but when she's discovered by a guard (Obi Abili), Kreon sentences her to be buried alive in a tomb. Haimon (Samuel Edward-Cook) — Kreon's son and Antigone's fiancé — tries to persuade his father to reconsider this punishment, as does the seer Teiresias (Finbar Lynch). After the gods show displeasure with Kreon, he relents. When he goes to release Antigone, Kreon finds Haimon bewailing his intended bride, who has hanged herself. Distraught, Haimon attacks his father, then kills himself. When Kreon's wife, Eurydike (Kathryn Pogson), hears of her son's death, she takes her life as well. Though he remains king, Kreon, a broken man, acknowledges that going against the laws of the gods brought about his ruin.
Director van Hove gives Antigone a contemporary urgency by keeping one foot in Sophocles' ancient world and another planted squarely in the present. Jan Versweyveld's magnificent set, distinguished by clean, minimalist lines, blends the aesthetic of a Greek temple with a modern-day corporate office. Upstage, in the middle of an enormous wall, an unassuming doorway stands beneath a large oculus, which shines brightly when a pendulum-like disc slowly swings up and away from it, similar to the movement of the moon after an eclipse (Versweyveld also designed the brilliant lighting). Tal Yarden projects ghostly, blurred images of people on the large wall of the "temple," as though they were a silent chorus eerily watching over the proceedings onstage.
Sophocles, of course, did employ a speaking chorus, but van Hove assigns the chorus' lines to individual actors, a directorial choice that at times confuses the action. Anne Carson’s translation, however, remains faithful to the text, while making the play feel new by using short, sleekly poetic lines that concentrate the action and give the language a rich intensity. When Antigone, clad in a breezy black outfit (costumes by An d'Huys), contemplates her fate, in a moment of martyr-like fervor she exclaims, "I'm a strange new kind of inbetween thing aren't I / not at home with the dead or the living." Here Binoche shows us a woman who is less a hero than someone whose unyielding principles, like Kreon's, have caused her undoing. In a nod to current politics, O'Kane looks strikingly Putinesque with his bald head and sharp suit. He delivers a stunning performance as the intransigent, ultimately humbled ruler.
Kirsty Bushell convincingly conveys Ismene's terror for the welfare of her sister with a startlingly moving performance in the opening scene. Abili provides comedic breaks in the action, with his Guard's deadpan pleas to Kreon not to hold him responsible for Polyneikes' burial. And as Kreon's wife, Pogson poignantly creates an elegantly patrician woman whom we feel for as she crumbles before us like a dry autumn leaf.
This production makes clear that Antigone has as much to say to today's audiences as it did to Sophocles'. It's hard not to ponder the play's relationship to organizations like Charlie Hebdo and people like Kim Davis, or any number of hardhanded politicians and tyrannical corporate tycoons. Together van Hove and Sophocles try to teach us a timeless lesson about the dangers of extremist thought and the need for compromise. It's a lesson that, millennia later, we have yet to learn.