‘Antigone faces her humanity. She is going through fear, then anger, then abandonment.’
East Side, reflecting on the origins of the new adaptation of “Antigone” that van Hove directs and in which she stars. She’s headed to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater this week for four days of performances and an end to her journey with the play, one that began with its premiere in Luxembourg in February and took the international cast to, among other places, Edinburgh, Brooklyn and Ann Arbor, Mich.
After a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater the night before, she is on this late weekday morning in comfy off-duty attire: a black-and-white check flannel shirt and black pants, and her demeanor is open, eager for an exchange about the play. That she had to win over van Hove to her preference — and that he then engaged the esteemed Canadian poet and classics professor Anne Carson to contribute a spare new translation of Sophocles’s play — have given her an exceptionally personal stake in the production’s fate. (The reception here and abroad has been mixed, with some critics praising the level of invention and others finding the design conceits pretentious.)
Binoche volunteers that she did have a few qualms about the role herself — but mostly having to do with the amount of offstage time endured by Antigone, who’s unseen for long stretches of the 100-minute drama. The daughter of Oedipus and Electra, Antigone in Sophocles’s play is a woman whose defiance of the state, in service of her own belief in what is right, spells her ruin. The king of Delphi, Kreon, has ordered that the body of her rebellious brother Polyneikes not be given the dignity of a burial. Though no love was lost between her and her brother, Antigone ignores the king’s edict and performs the sacred rite over Polyneikes, enraging Kreon and planting the seeds of her own demise.
For Binoche, the play is about Antigone’s spiritual transformation, her ascendance to a higher plane of self-awareness, one the other characters don’t seem to comprehend. “It’s a knowledge of who you are, and what you’re doing here on Earth,” she says, that animates the drama. “What the play is also saying is, ‘Remember where you came from.’ And so what happens is Antigone faces her humanity. She is going through fear, then anger, then abandonment.”
The actress says she asked both van Hove and Carson whether the stages of Antigone’s inner transformation could be made more explicit — by giving her more stage time. “When I read the play, I thought, ‘Well, I disappear,’ ” she says. “It was going to be a long tour, and I didn’t want to be miserable in the dressing room. I wrote an e-mail to Ivo to tell him all of the places where we could expand the part.”
This did not sit particularly well with Carson, who she reports, replied, “No, this is what it is.”
Still, she and her director did manage to add some business for Antigone, including reassigning to her some of the lines of a minor character and more important, creating a scene in which she silently dresses her brother’s body with oils and places it in the earth. “I did some research with rituals, and I chose what I felt was right for the scene,” the actress says. That included the intoning of a prayer, occasioning another request of Carson. “Do you mind writing a prayer for me,” Binoche says she asked the translator, “that I’m not saying out loud?”
Carson agreed to do it, the actress recounts, and the moment became known as “the fake prayer for Juliette.”
That Binoche’s will might be a match for Antigone’s was apparent before this venture. It’s a characteristic that has been evident over the years in her eclectic film projects, though she remains best known for her performances in 1996’s “The English Patient” and in the 2000 comedy “Chocolat,” for which she was nominated for a best actress Academy Award. The daughter of Parisian stage people — her father was a director and her mother an actress — Binoche has returned again and again to theater, most prominently in this country in a 2000 revival on Broadway of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” with Liev Schreiber and John Slattery. She garnered a Tony nomination for her portrayal. Her toggling between stage and screen continues this fall, with her role alongside Antonio Banderas, James Brolin and Lou Diamond Phillips in “The 33,” a film about the ordeal in 2010 of 33 Chilean miners trapped for more than two months beneath the Earth.
For the moment, though, Binoche is focused on closing the circle with Antigone. “I love the smell of the theater,” she says. “It’s in my blood. The privilege of acting is really embodying a character and finding the truth of it, and living it.”
Juliette Binoche stars director Ivo van Hove’s Kennedy Center-bound “Antigone.” The French actress has achieved big-screen stardom in movies such as “The English Patient” and “Chocolat” and stage success in productions such as the 2000 Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal.”