4 stars ****
IT’S A DUSTY, DESERT place, the Thebes that is conjured up in Ivo van Hove’s impressive new international production of Antigone, which forms the centrepiece of this year’s Edinburgh Festival theatre programme. Jan Versweyfeld’s wide, open set conjures up a dry and barren landscape swept by sudden winds, and dominated by a great, burning sun, sometimes orange, sometimes white.
Yet in the foreground there is something like a comfortable presidential office, with black leather sofas, and low cabinets full of files; and it’s here that the city’s new ruler, Kreon, hands out the decree that following the recent civil war, one of his two nephews, the rebel Polyneikes, is to be left to rot on the open plain outside the city gates, where he died in a hand-to-hand battle with his own brother.
And it’s this decree, of course, that triggers the tragic chain of events that make up Sophokles’s mighty play, first seen in Athens almost 2,500 years ago; as Kreon’s niece Antigone, now the eldest surviving child of her once-royal family, insists on burying her brother with all due funeral rites, even at the cost of her own life.
Yet even with the exquisite and utterly compelling Juliette Binoche playing Antigone – and capturing every inch of her stubborn insistence on obeying the old law of the gods, even at the cost of her life – it’s striking how the tone of this drama always depends most profoundly on the playing of Kreon, who is presented here, by Patrick O’Kane, as a smooth and intensely macho Vladimir-Putin-like figure in an elegant suit, who talks of consultation and good governance, but in reality cannot tolerate even the slightest dissent, not even from the seer Tiresias, beautifully played by Finbar Lynch, whose insight has helped bring him to power.
There are moments when van Hove’s slow-moving production – with every word carefully miked and woven in to Daniel Freitag’s simmering soundscape – plays up a little too much to the image of Greek drama as one long wail of exaggerated grief and horror.
Yet with Anne Carson’s new version of the text alternating smoothly between sonorous poetry and modern political street-language, and emphasising the intense instinctive chauvinism of a leader determined not to be bested by a woman, it’s clear that what van Hove wants is for us to gaze long, hard and without haste at the inner workings of power, and at what it does, or can do, to the human psyche. And in that, his productions succeeds magnificently; even if – despite the sheer eloquence and beauty of Binoche’s presence – it often seems more like the terrible story of Kreon, finally brought to his knees by his own lack of wisdom, than the tragedy of Antigone herself.
Until 22 August.
EIF p. 13