On the bloodied Boeotian plains outside the seven gates of Thebes, Ismene struggles in vain to persuade her sister Antigone to obey the edict of their uncle Kreon, Thebes’s new head of state: “We’re girls,” she cries. “Girls cannot force their way against men.” Antigone will have none of it. She is determined to perform the sacred burial rites for her brother, Polyneikes, who was slain in a brutal civil war when he refused to relinquish the throne. Having deemed Polyneikes an enemy of the state, Kreon forbids any citizen from mourning his corpse. But Antigone is not easily cowed by the seemingly arbitrary decrees of men.
Classical Athenian tragedy was written and performed by men for a largely male audience. But that didn’t mean ancient playwrights shied from creating powerful, flawed, and fiercely independent female characters. Euripides’s Medea responds to her husband’s betrayal by murdering his new wife and their own children. Sophocles’s Electra avenges her father’s death by conspiring in the murder of her mother. Antigone is as striking a force in Greek tragedy as any Oedipus or Agamemnon. This helps explain why Sophocles’s play endures: having premiered in the late 440s BC, it has remained a classic of Western theatre ever since. An acclaimed production from the Toneelgroep Amsterdam, directed by Ivo van Hove and starring Juliette Binoche, has been touring America this month.