Juliette Binoche is trying to convince me that the real focus of Antigone is not the title role she plays in a new touring production. Helmed by avant-garde director Ivo van Hove, it comes to Carolina Performing Arts straight from its premiere at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The Oscar-winning French actor is best known for her work in films such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The English Patient, Chocolat and last year's Clouds of Sils Maria. But Binoche began her career onstage and has regularly returned to it over the years, giving acclaimed performances in Chekhov's The Seagull in Paris, Pirandello's Naked in London and Pinter's Betrayal on Broadway.
"[Antigone] is a play about the humanization of Kreon and about what it takes to become a real human being," Binoche insists, speaking by phone. Kreon, Antigone's uncle and the ruler of Thebes, is her foil in Sophocles' 5th-century Greek tragedy.
He's also the tyrant whose unwise mandates bring the allegiances of his citizens—to their families, faiths and nation—into direct conflict with one another. Kreon is played by Irish stage actor Patrick O'Kane, who has also done TV and film work, including a recurring role on Game of Thrones.
"When we meet Antigone," Binoche says, "she has overcome her need for possessions, for power and for enjoyment, over years in exile, caring for her father. All she has left is her sister. The circumstance makes her totally free and alone."
By contrast, Kreon is "losing his power, his possessions, losing the trust that the chorus, the common people, have in him, losing enjoyment. He must do this, in a day, to find the higher consciousness Antigone has at the start."
That isn't the only departure from conventional wisdom here. Poet Anne Carson's new, word-for-word translation, a refinement of her 2012 adaptation, Antigonick, seems skeletal compared with the flourishes of rhetoric in famous adaptations by Seamus Heaney and Jean Anouilh, among others. But Binoche finds the spareness of Carson's text opens up the script in a new way.
"When I read other translations, they seemed more like interpretations," Binoche says. "They try to place Antigone in the juice of their time, to make it accessible as a piece of literature. Carson's translation is so direct, though it's of our time, it's beyond time. Instead of being too self-conscious, too self-indulgent with language, it gives you the space to experience what it is. That's very freeing for the actors."
Though the work has divided critics thus far, a close reading of their responses suggests a production that is still evolving. On one night, a reviewer knocks the actors' monotone readings. On another, their shrillness gives a different critic pause. Binoche seems to confirm this state of flux.
"Every night I am learning something different," she says. "The experience of the play is not intellectual; it is carried through bodies and emotions. Sometimes it's wild, other times it's more internal. Every night is different."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Skeletal Sophocles "