Antigone brings the best out of Juliette Binoche
Antigone, Juliette Binoche

The French star and director Ivo Van Hove make a formidable pair, writes Mark Fisher

When London theatregoers fall into raptures over Ivo Van Hove, I can never decide whether to be smug or irritated. Smug, because here in Scotland, we were enjoying the work of this Belgian-born director as long ago as 1998.

Back when Brian McMaster was running the Edinburgh International Festival, he brought us three Van Hove productions. There was Eugene O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions, performed at breakneck speed by New York Theatre Workshop. There was Albert Camus’ Caligula, given an austere, hi-tech staging by Eindhoven’s Het Zuidelijk Toneel. And there was Marguerite Duras’ India Song, a mesmerising production that captured the languid air of the subcontinent right down to the wafting smell of citronella.

My irritation, on the other hand, is that all this seems to have been forgotten in the capital (was anyone even listening?) in the rush to welcome more recent Van Hove triumphs. Thanks to shows such as The Roman Tragedies and A View From The Bridge, others have caught up with something we knew all along.

Of course, the hang-ups are all mine and his subsequent successes are great. So too is the return of Van Hove to the Edinburgh International Festival. He is back with Antigone, the Sophocles tragedy about the king who refuses a decent burial to his enemy and the sister who is determined to pay her dead brother due respect.

It appears in this production in a new translation by US poet Anne Carson. And although Van Hove isn’t a director known for working with star names, it’s doing no harm to the EIF box office that in the lead role is Juliette Binoche.

“Everybody in the world knows Juliette Binoche,” he says. “When I walk with her on the street, everybody looks. But I cannot be aware of that when I’m rehearsing. Of course, there will be a lot of people who come to the show just to see Juliette Binoche on stage, but I’m not concerned with that. I just want to make a work with her on stage in the way that I do with my own company.”

After being brought together by a producer, he and the French star of Chocolat discovered they both had a yearning to do one of the Greeks. After several conversations, they settled on Antigone. You do, though, have to go a long way back into the Van Hove canon to find any other Greek plays. It’s nearly 30 years since he staged The Bacchae and not much less since he worked on a mash-up called Ajax/Antigone. “It’s because it’s really difficult to put Greek tragedy on stage and make it into a gripping, moving, disturbing evening in the theatre,” he says. “It’s difficult because the plays are short. Antigone is over in one hour and 40 minutes and easily it can become, ‘Oh, he or she was great, the set was great,’ but it’s not really that you take something home.”

He found that special something in a play that echoes the intransigence we see around the world today. “Antigone is a very extreme character,” he says. “She is acting emotionally, impulsively, not driven by any ideology, just driven by a human impulse, namely to bury and pay respect to her brother, even when he was wrong.”
The tragedy is ignited because of a contrary impulse that is equally strong. “Creon, on the other hand, also has a drive, a goal that I totally respect. After the terrible years of the Oedipus dynasty, he wants to end this curse. He wants a society that moves on into the future with new ideas, an open society with a clear set of rules so that people know what to do and it doesn’t become the barbaric place that it has been.”

Van Hove’s thinking has been influenced by US philosopher Martha Nussbaum, whose books such as The Fragility Of Goodness extrapolate ethical lessons from classical Greece. “She thinks that humanity should be our guiding line,” says the director. “We have a hard time accepting that the 20th century is over, that the time of the great ideologies – communism, capitalism, Nazism – is over. We have a hard time getting into the 21st century. Nussbaum helps a little bit to make us aware that we are human beings and that humanity is taking the first step towards a real renewal.”

Antigone, King’s Theatre, 7-22 Aug / listings