Ivo van Hove’s greatly anticipated production of Sophocles’ Antigone has been somewhat of a focal point in this year’s Edinburgh International Festival programme. Juliette Binoche stars as the title character, who seeks to bury her brother Polyneikes, against the decree of the king (her uncle), Kreon.
The new translation by Canadian poet Anne Carson seamlessly weaves the more traditional interpretation of the text with contemporary language in a way that keeps the dialogue relevant whilst preserving the sense of its original composition. Carson’s translation brings out the humanity in the play – these aren’t just characters in a classical tragedy, they are human. We’re not just watching a re-telling of an ancient myth, we’re seeing the reality of pride, loyalty, justice, and cruelty, and their impact on people’s lives.
This comes out most strongly in the relationship between Kreon (Patrick O’Kane) and his son Haimon (Samuel Edward-Cook). Haimon’s guidance is mature and considered as he tries to convince Kreon of the dangers of his stubbornness. Contrasted with his father’s aggression and pride, we see young wisdom talking sense in the face of established power. Whilst Haimon’s advice starts out calmly, he is soon squaring up to his father, as the tension between justice and compassion builds.
Binoche’s performance as the title character is gripping, but the focus is much more strongly on Kreon’s development and downfall than it is on Antigone. Her actions are often seen as a display of a woman’s revolt against her male-dominated environment. O’Kane’s characterisation of the despotic Kreon certainly portrays a man in a man’s world – the king demands strict obedience and strives never to be bettered by a woman – but Atigone’s actions come across here as primarily driven by her love for her brother. What exploration there is of her character’s motivation and emotion revolves around her pain at being mistreated by the arrogant king.
When it comes down to it, this comes across as much more of a man’s play than I would have expected. The key themes of the story of Antigone – her relationship with her sister Ismene (Kirsty Bushell), her rebellion against established rule, her final success in freeing her family from its past – go under-explored. The relationship between Antigone and Ismene is a shaky one, with sisterly solidarity there one minute and gone the next. As much as Antigone rebels against established laws, it is Haimon who tackles his father head on with the stark warning of the dangers of arrogant rule. And the central clash between Kreon’s stubborn justice and Antigone’s compassion for her brother serves more to illustrate how the proud king learns not to ignore the will of the gods.
That isn’t to distract from the production as a whole though – it is a thoroughly engaging performance. The set by Jan Versweyveld is stark and minimalist, and the delivery deliberate and unhurried, bringing the impending tragedy into sharp focus. The final scene, where the chorus take their places at what look like c. 1960s office desks, suddenly pulls the play from its undisclosed and undescribed setting and into the real world. Again, Van Hove reminds us that this is not simply an isolated tale, but a timeless story of pride vs. compassion.
Antigone is playing as part of Edinburgh International Festival at the King’s Theatre until August 22nd