University of Regina Press ($20)
by W. C. Bamberger
In 2012, Anne Carson published Antigonick, a translation of Sophokles’ Antigone that is humorous in some places and Beckett-like in others. In 2014, she received a request from the Belgian director Ivo van Hove to do a more traditional translation, one that specifically fleshed out the characters for a production of the play to star Juliette Binoche. After first being “enraged” by the request to revisit a work she had already translated, Carson agreed. She and her husband then invited their friend Will Aitken, an American-Canadian novelist and critic, to attend rehearsals and the play’s opening in Luxembourg in early 2015. This book is the result of that fortuitous encounter.
Antigone Undone begins as a travel journal and record of the premiere. In Part I, Aitken records details of the production’s rehearsal, of the video backdrops and the actors’ physicality—the actor playing King Kreon “moves on action verbs,” for example—and of modern-dress production touches such as shelves of surveillance tapes. Aitken doesn’t intrude on the process of the actors’ rehearsals and staging details, but he does insert himself into the narrative he tells. As Binoche begins staking out the ways in which she will give her always-varying performances as Antigone, Aitken begins to find similarities between the interaction of Antigone and Kreon and conversations he had with his father. He begins to identify with Antigone, an identification that leads him to a bleak view of the modern world: “Nothing’s changed. In the two and a half thousand years since Sophokles wrote Antigone, the world persists unaltered.”
After the premiere, Aitken wanders Amsterdam for a few days, his thoughts occupied with emotional reflections prompted by the play: “Sophokles articulates suffering with a scary aplomb laced with scathing wit. That his world mimics my world terrifies me, for it flattens promise and any possibility of forward movement.” Aitken has a gift for presenting such thoughts effectively, even as he ties his feelings about the play into his own personal history of depression. All of this comes off not as self-indulgence, but as a clear guide to why this ancient play still works for us: namely because, despite all its wider moral and civic framing, its deepest effects come by way of the drama of individual moments.
Part II of Antigone Undone is a “collage interview” of the three principals—Binoche, van Hove, and Carson. Aitken interviewed them separately then edited their responses together to create the illusion of face-to-face interaction. Here Binoche talks about the “big themes” of the play, about how she wanted to perform an active character, someone who tries to move things forward. Carson discusses how after she had reluctantly done the second translation, Binoche requested further additions to help her give Antigone more layers—a request Carson feared could turn the play into a melodrama.
We become absorbed in this conversation—Binoche pointing to Antigonik to justify asking Carson to write an addition to the play, Carson responding that she refused to do so because it would have been the very definition of hubris, and more. (In the end, an added scene was created by the actor and director, allowing Antigone’s spirit to appear after her death, whereas she vanishes from the original two-thirds of the way through.) Then we remember that this conversation didn’t actually take place, but was created by Aitken to make the exchange of ideas the principals had during the production more immediate and real to us, the readers. Here Aitken, in part, is emulating the compartmentalized way Antigone itself proceeds—the isolated soliloquys of Antigone, Kreon, and Haimon; the emotional epicenter of the play coming in the messenger’s recitation of off-stage events—and how it is only in the audience’s experience that a whole is created. The many subtleties at work in Aitken’s writing suggest this echoing is no accident.
In Part III, Aitken moves into theoretical musing. He sketches Hegel’s pioneering writings about Antigone, and readings of it by Virginia Woolf, Judith Butler, and others. Aitken here plays the role of both messenger and chorus, bringing into his book the intellectual news from these distant sources.
Aitken gives Binoche the final words here. At Carson’s home after the next-to-last performance, Binoche says, “As an actor . . . you must embrace your character’s pain and the pain of the world. You must do that, or why bother?” This can easily be read as a final reminder of the parallels between the actor’s emotional engagement and Aitken’s own. It is a measure of Aitken’s skill as a writer that he is able to make this parallel movement a constant through this short book—at times overtly, at times almost subliminally—and, with only a few momentary lapses, not fall into melodrama.