Few plays in the history of theater have attracted so much attention for their political resonances as much as ancient Greek playwright and statesman Sophocles’s “Antigone.” From its role as a parable of anti-fascist resistance in Jean Anoihl and Bertolt Brecht’s 1940s re-stagings to its reception as a feminist call-to-arms against state power, the questions that this 441 BCE work poses will find new life yet again this week at the Power Center for Performing Arts in Ann Arbor with a star-studded cast of collaborators.
French Academy Award-winning actress, dancer and artist Juliette Binoche will star in this production directed by Ivo van Hove, former director of Het Zuidelijk Toneel in Eindhoven and Toneelgroep Amsterdam and winner of various international theatrical awards. This performance features a new translation by poet, translator, essayist and former University professor Anne Carson, who has also previously translated “Antigone,” the second of Sophocles’s Theban trilogy, in an idiosyncratic, thoughtful and poignant rendering entitled “Antigonick.” However, at Hove’s request, Carson-the-poet took a backseat to Carson-the-classicist, with the script for this production a more literal, word-for-word translation.
“I think this is an analogy for the difference between them (the two translations),” Carson said at a Penny Stamps Lecture on Oct. 13. “In Antigonick, I tried to take a photograph of an apple tree from an angle that would capture the essence of that apple tree at a certain moment that I thought beautiful. And in the second version, it’s more like I’m taking hold of the tree and trying to shake every apple down, get every apple off it.”
These performances, as well as the dialogue between Binoche, Carson and Montreal-based novelist Will Aitken that took place at the Penny Stamps lecture are a high watermark in Ann Arbor arts. This week, local audiences have the opportunity to experience genuinely world-class talent bearing upon questions of translation, performance and interpretation of this centerpiece of ancient Greek theater.
Briefly summarized, “Antigone” presents the conflict between Antigone, daughter of the incestuous marriage between Oedipus and Jocasta and thus princess of Thebes, and Creon, king of Thebes. In the course of a civil war, Antigone’s two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices kill each other over claims to the throne. However, Creon declares Eteocles a hero and a Polyneices a traitor, forbidding that the latter be buried. Antigone, whose love for her brother borders on incestuous (“yet how sweet to lie upon my brother’s / body, thigh to thigh,” Carson renders in “Antigonick”), refuses his decree and buries her brother. Eventually, Antigone and Haemon (Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancée) commit suicide before Creon is able to deliver the news that he will bury Polyneices and will spare Antigone because of the gods’ anger over his decree since the burial of the dead is sacred.
Hove is sensitive to the political implications of burial and to the nuances of this play as a political work overall. He says in the University Musical Society program booklet that “ ‘Antigone’ develops from a play about a brutal war into a play about politics and public policies and ends as a play about the helplessness of humans, lost in the cosmos.”
Philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler’s 2000 book “Antigone’s Claim” is significant for its engagement with the play’s political, potentially feminist, meanings that every performer brings their own perspective to bear on.
“There’s something in the play that is very reachable, accessible, you understand immediately in your life and our society, because we need to heal something about our family, about our society, about our world,” Binoche said in an interview with UMS. “Antigone is a healer somehow, even if she chooses to sacrifice herself.”