First published in The Times, Monday August 10 2015
There is something disconcerting about seeing Juliette Binoche, one of the most luminous screen presences of the last quarter century, shrunk to a tiny figure on a wide open stage. Even her director, Ivo Van Hove, can’t quite acclimatise himself to this reduction in scale. He takes more than one opportunity to put her back where she belongs by projecting her iconic image onto the vast screen at the back of the stage.
It is unfair – if inevitable – that Binoche has become the talisman of this flawed but still fascinating production, not least because Van Hove’s approach to Sophocles is so determinedly egalitarian, with each member of the ensemble allowed their moment to shine, and all of the actors – Binoche included – required to double up on roles. As Antigone, who provokes the wrath of Kreon (Patrick O’Kane), ruler of Thebes, by giving funeral rites to her traitor-brother Polyneikes, Binoche is always watchable, even if she performs at an emotional pitch that, while never outlandish, at times feels strained.
The actress shares one of the production’s more unsettling scenes with O’Kane’s quietly menacing Kreon, who, having listened to Antigone’s explanation for defying his law, places an arm around her shoulder and draws her towards him, briefly deferring the moment of his judgement. Van Hove’s production is full of such disarming touches. The scene in which Teiresias (Finbar Lynch), rebukes Kreon for refusing to listen to his prophesies, is a brilliantly sustained two-hander that climaxes in a burst of violence. By far the tenderest scene in the production is the brief moment of reckoning between O’Kane and Samuel Edward-Cook, who is very moving as Kreon’s decent and uncomprehending son, Haimon.
Yet subtlety and restraint are the default settings of Van Hove’s always-compelling production, from the minimalism of Jan Versweyveld’s open stage and lighting designs to the understated performances and the striking austerity of the translation, by Anne Carson, the Canadian poet. The writing, while spare, contains the odd unexpected flash of black humour that further unsettles the audience.