Sitting through a production of Antigone can be agony—especially when it’s good. There’s a tale of fratricide at the top, and news of suicide after suicide after suicide for the finale. The events in between—dominated by grieving, geschrei-ing, and debating—can also be grueling, which is entirely on point. From Aristotle and straight through the ages, extreme emotions on stage have been described as a purgative, overwhelming an audience member’s psyche and then rebooting it to a long-lost balance.
At BAM, high prospects for catharsis are tied to the pedigree of both the Sophocles play and the new production’s director, international phenom Ivo Van Hove. His version of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, seen off-Broadway last season, moved the audience from living room to bedroom to surreal head space to get us up close and personal with the truth that no one can hate like a life-long love. His Angels in America made a scarifying void of the near-empty BAM Harvey Theater stage, spurring the characters to cling to and repel each other in an exultant dance of death and life. And his West End revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from a Bridge, which transfers to Broadway this month, proves the play, more than maybe any other in the modern era, deserves comparison to Greek tragedies like Antigone.
By dousing Miller’s flawed hero under a shower for the production’s prologue and climax, Van Hove gives a nod to the cleansing effects of catharsis. But he confounds expectation by making Antigone an altogether dry affair. It’s not for nothing that he places the exteriors in a desert. In the opening moments, he pelts Juliette Binoche’s eponymous heroine with wind and tumbling tumbleweeds as she details her plan to inter her dead brother, who was branded a traitor and refused rights of burial by King Kreon.
Those tumbleweeds add the potential for kitsch. It’s the only risk Van Hove makes. They soon roll off stage, leaving the image to achieve an exquisite beauty that’s simultaneously elemental and contemporary, just like Ann Carson’s new translation. An upstage wall evokes timelessness via a disc that rotates around and off, leaving a hole that serves as a blinding sun. For interiors, it’s lit like a moon, overseeing a generically sleek bureaucratic zone of current governmental and corporate power.
Patrick O’Kane’s Kreon rules here calmly, promoting social stability over the emotional needs of the few, like Antigone. This is also where members of the chorus hash out the issues in engaged but conversational tones. Each takes on a role, as queen (Kathryn Pogson), prophet (Finbar Lynch), Guard (Obi Abili), and prince (Samuel Edward-Cook). Kristy Bushell, seen first as Antigone’s docile sister Ismene, later joins the chorus, and so does Binoche. It’s fitting that the Oscar winner is at her most comfortable here. The chorus members are the only ones who occupy the stage floor, closest to us, literally, and Van Hove, figuratively. Antigone and Kreon believe they’re on higher ground than everyone else. Both are unmovable, which makes them uninterested in anyone else and none too fascinating to Van Hove. He instead finds the center of Sophocles’s play in the mindfulness of all the others.
They hash out the issues, using the give and take of conversation to connect with what’s best in each other and how best to proceed. Everyone is miked, forming a baseline to the prevailing coolness in tone. But this doesn’t preclude engagement. Van Hove’s staging motif here is the false exit. Repeatedly, those appealing to Antigone’s reason or Kreon’s heart will start to go, then double back with one last thing. Their passion isn’t in proving they’re right, but in pleading for a workable compromise when none of the possible options is perfect.
It’s not just the characters, but also the actors playing them, who earn our greatest admiration. Binoche excels in the silent scene of burial, but her voice has little range and goes flat when increasing in volume and urgency. O’Kane’s power evaporates when he pushes for emotion. Just as Haimon balances out his father and fiancée’s extremes, Samuel Edward-Cook impresses with fervent physicality and emotion. Abili gets the production’s only laughs as a guard who speaks plainly about staying blameless for what he can’t control.
Ultimately, this Antigone does what it espouses, appealing to our level heads rather than inflaming our passions. It’s a Greek tragedy for the followers of Plato, who feared art’s bad influence in upending our equilibrium. Any urge to criticize this as a limited use of all that the play and Van Hove can achieve may send you doubling back with one last defense. On its own terms, there’s more than enough here to spark the mind and satisfy the eye.
Antigone runs through October 4 at the BAM Harvey Theater.